James Le Fanu: Why Us? (The limitations of science)

by George Jelliss ⌂ @, St Leonards on Sea, Sunday, May 24, 2009, 20:15 (3794 days ago)

James Le Fanu is a doctor who seems to hold similar views to David Turell and has a book coming out: "Why Us? How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves"

http://www.jameslefanu.com/

I'd not heard of him before, until he appeared earlier today on "Private Passions" (a sort of up-market "Desert Island Disks" hosted by the composer Michael Berkeley) on BBC Radio 3.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006tnv3/episodes/player

He concluded his selection with an extract from Haydn's "Creation".

--
GPJ

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by David Turell @, Monday, May 25, 2009, 17:03 (3793 days ago) @ George Jelliss

James Le Fanu is a doctor who seems to hold similar views to David Turell and has a book coming out: "Why Us? How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves"

In earlier posts the attitude of atheists during discussions has been mentioned and in general those of us who are not atheists have been met by anger, nastiness, vituperation, etc. My many thanks to George who is not at all an example of what I have experienced, and further thanks for introducing us to Dr. Le Fanu. On a recent Uncommon Descent, Bruce David presented an analyis of atheistic attitude as he saw it. I agree with the analysis:

"To vastly over simplify the actual state of affairs, there are two kinds of people in the world: those whose highest value is truth, and those for whom being right is more important than anything else.

Imagine that you have grown up into a smug atheist, secure in your beliefs, looking down your nose with benign condescension on those benighted souls who, being either ignorant, stupid, insane, or (dare I say it) wicked, persist in believing in that ancient superstition, the existence of a Creator. Now imagine that suddenly, without warning, science itself has begun to turn on you...cosmology has determined that the Universe had a beginning, the fundamental constants of physics and cosmology are turning out to have been incredibly fine tuned to support the existence of life, the stunning complexity and sophistication of the cell beggars any naturalistic explanation of its origin, and the neo-Darwinian synthesis is being called into question by unanswerable attacks on its explanatory power.

In such a situation, if you are one of those for whom being right is your highest value, one who has identified yourself as a member of the elite who know the obvious truth of things, all this evidence for the existence of a Creator will not just be a threat to your beliefs, it will be a threat to what you imagine is the very core of your being.

And now Guillermo Gonzalez adds fuel to this blaze by providing powerful evidence that the earth itself, the home of and support for human life, is in a highly improbable position perfect for the pursuit of scientific inquiry. Is it any wonder that this is a threat?

The great thing about Antony Flew is that his life has been devoted to a genuine search for truth, and he has always respected those with whom he disagreed. Thus, he had no emotional stake in the outcome of his inquiries, and when the evidence became overwhelming for the existence of a Creator, he happily changed his mind. He is one of my heroes.

(Note: I share Bruce David's admiration for Antony Flew. Not only did he change his mind but, because of his age, he had the additional humilation of young yay-hoos proclaiming that he had gone senile.

As a person who deals with a number of seniors coping very effectively with brain problems, while remaining lucid, I can only suppose that the yay-hoos' ignorance is their best excuse. I can easily think of worse ones.)"

This last portion is a comment from Denyse O'Leary.

Are agnostics anywhere is this comment? Does George have an observation?

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by dhw, Tuesday, May 26, 2009, 15:02 (3793 days ago) @ David Turell

David Turell, quoting Bruce David: "Imagine that you have grown up into a smug atheist, secure in your beliefs, looking down your nose with benign condescension on those benighted souls who, being either ignorant, stupid, insane, or (dare I say it) wicked, persist in believing in that ancient superstition, the existence of a Creator. Now imagine that suddenly, without warning, science itself has begun to turn on you [...] all this evidence for the existence of a Creator will not just be a threat to your beliefs, it will be a threat to what you imagine is the very core of your being." [The ellipsis contains evidence for the existence of a Creator.]

Let me first state the obvious: if you substitute "smug theist" for "smug atheist", and "non-existence" for "existence", the pattern will be equally apt. Any evidence that runs contrary to one's beliefs will be seen as a threat, and there are certainly just as many smug theists as there are smug atheists.

Bruce David says that "there are two kinds of people in the world: those whose highest value is truth, and those for whom being right is more important than anything else." He admits, however, that this is a vast oversimplification, and I would say that it is so oversimplified as to be practically worthless ... though providing good material for discussion. As I see it, people with solid convictions, whether theistic or atheistic, are bound to believe that they "know the obvious truth of things" and will therefore dismiss contrary evidence as unworthy of consideration. Bruce David's thesis implies self-deception or even dishonesty on the part of his second category (by which he means atheists), but this is like saying that anyone who does not share his beliefs is too proud to admit that they are wrong. I would call that smugness.

You ask whether agnostics are anywhere in this comment. I can only speak for myself, of course, but I would say that being right scarcely enters into the equation. How can you pretend, let alone think you are right when you admit you don't know? But there is unquestionably a different danger which may apply subconsciously to all of us. We get used to our beliefs or non-beliefs. This can easily be rationalized, since there is ample material to back beliefs and non-beliefs of all kinds. I don't think it is a matter of "being right", so much as staying within our comfort zone, particularly as we get older. The idea of turning to God may demand a complete change of lifestyle, and conversely abandoning one's faith may mean losing an essential means of support. That is one reason why the case of Antony Flew is so notable and so admirable. But whether his conversion from atheism to deism represents the "truth" or not is another matter.

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by David Turell @, Tuesday, May 26, 2009, 18:05 (3792 days ago) @ dhw
edited by unknown, Tuesday, May 26, 2009, 18:42

Let me first state the obvious: if you substitute "smug theist" for "smug atheist", and "non-existence" for "existence", the pattern will be equally apt. Any evidence that runs contrary to one's beliefs will be seen as a threat, and there are certainly just as many smug theists as there are smug atheists.

I don't think David is 'smug'. The real issue for him (and for me) is the willingness to follow new scientific developments and possibly reach new conclusions from them as to what may be the underlying 'truth'.

Bruce David says that "there are two kinds of people in the world: those whose highest value is truth, and those for whom being right is more important than anything else." He admits, however, that this is a vast oversimplification, and I would say that it is so oversimplified as to be practically worthless

Not 'worthless' if my interpretation of Bruce David is correct. People who stick with always being 'right' about their belief system, and who do not follow where science is apparently leading the path to truth are rigid and unwilling to change their conclusions.

You ask whether agnostics are anywhere in this comment. I can only speak for myself, of course, but I would say that being right scarcely enters into the equation. That is one reason why the case of Antony Flew is so notable and so admirable. But whether his conversion from atheism to deism represents the "truth" or not is another matter.

Bravo for you. Antony Flew followed my prescription for clear thinking. We all should.

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by dhw, Wednesday, May 27, 2009, 14:38 (3792 days ago) @ David Turell

David Turell has drawn our attention to Bruce David's attack on "smug atheists" who, he claims, suddenly find that science has begun to turn on them, with lots of evidence supporting the existence of a Creator.

David T: I don't think [Bruce] David is 'smug'. The real issue for him (and for me) is the willingness to follow new scientific developments and possibly reach new conclusions from them as to what may be the underlying 'truth'.

I agree totally with your sentiments, but Bruce D confines his attack to atheists, whereas your comment is general. My objection is mainly to the one-sidedness of his approach. Why doesn't he also mention, for instance, the Creationists who insist that the world is no more than 10,000 years old? When he argues that there are people "for whom being right is more important than anything else" (i.e. than the "truth"), again he makes it clear that he is referring to atheists. As I pointed out earlier, this suggests that no interpretation of science is genuine except his own. George, in his reply, says: "I am an atheist because that's where my evaluation of the evidence leads me." I believe him, and admire his restraint in the face of Bruce D's insinuation that "being right" is more important to him than "the truth".

Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion, p. 100) quotes a study in Nature (1998) showing that only about 7% of the members of the US National Academy of Sciences believed in a personal God. The remaining 93% may have been wrong, or maybe vast numbers have been converted since, or maybe most of them were agnostics or deists or panentheists, but why impugn the integrity of the rest?

Interestingly Bruce D highlights the fact that Antony Flew "has always respected those with whom he disagreed". Bruce D clearly does not. He focuses solely on the smug atheist, as "one who has identified yourself as a member of the elite who know the obvious truth of things". This description fits any number of theists, from the Muslim suicide bomber to the Pope. For me, such one-sided attacks smack not just of smugness but also of bigotry. David T, on the other hand, calls for open-mindedness among theists as well as atheists. Now that I applaud.

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by David Turell @, Wednesday, May 27, 2009, 22:59 (3791 days ago) @ dhw

I agree totally with your sentiments, but Bruce D confines his attack to atheists, whereas your comment is general. My objection is mainly to the one-sidedness of his approach.

I think he was attacking the 'smug' atheist know-it-all. As I've mentioned I've been attacked the same way. Only some atheists are like that.

Interestingly Bruce D highlights the fact that Antony Flew "has always respected those with whom he disagreed". Bruce D clearly does not. He focuses solely on the smug atheist, as "one who has identified yourself as a member of the elite who know the obvious truth of things"...... David T, on the other hand, calls for open-mindedness among theists as well as atheists. Now that I applaud.

You should have included agnostics in that last sentence. And smug atheists should be attacked, especially in the way they treat the rest of us.

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by dhw, Thursday, May 28, 2009, 15:49 (3791 days ago) @ David Turell

David and I are playing a game of hermeneutics based on Bruce David's attack on "smug atheists".

David: I think he was attacking the 'smug' atheist know-it-all...And smug atheists should be attacked.

Atheists by definition do not believe in God, which means that by inference they reject what Bruce David believes to be "powerful evidence" for the existence of a Creator. They will do this whether they are smug or not. Is he then attacking smugness or is he attacking atheism? If he is attacking smugness, I'm sure we would all be on his side (except for smug people, but they probably wouldn't recognize their smugness, would they?). However, in that case he should also attack smug theists and smug agnostics and smug anybodies. If he is attacking atheism, what is the point of distinguishing between the smug and the non-smug?

DHW: David T, on the other hand, calls for open-mindedness among theists as well as atheists. Now that I applaud.

You admonished me for not including agnostics. As "the truth" is more important to me than "being right", I hereby acknowledge that you are right.

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by George Jelliss ⌂ @, St Leonards on Sea, Tuesday, May 26, 2009, 21:04 (3792 days ago) @ David Turell

David Turell asks "Does George have an observation?" So perhaps I'd better respond, but I won't be saying anything I haven't said before.

First I am not an atheist just for the sake of being obnoxious to theists. I'm an atheist because that's where my evaluation of the evidence leads me.

Arguments that follow the line: "... there are two kinds of people in the world ..." are in my experience rarely worthy of consideration. Very little, especially to do with people, can be usefully formulated in such black and white terms.

Le Fanu argues that "... the inscrutability of the genetic instruction that should distinguish worm from mouse, man from fly, and the failure to explain something as elementary as what constitutes a thought suggests we are in some way profounder and more complex than the physical world to which we belong."

I agree that the problems of genetics and neuroscience are complex, but I see no reason for supposing that the complexity cannot be resolved within the physical world. Postulating some non-physical realm is just a "spirituality of the gaps" argument that gets us no further.

Le Fanu: "There is a powerful impression that science has been looking in the wrong place, seeking to resolve questions that somehow lie outside its domain. It is not just a matter of not knowing all the facts but rather a sense that something of great importance is 'missing', that might conjure the richness of the human experience from the bare bones of our genes and brains."

I agree that there is something missing. That is always the case with developing scientific knowledge. Our understanding of how complexity develops and emerges out of simplicity is a frontier of knowledge, but I doubt whether the solution will be a return to old notions of vitalism.

--
GPJ

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by George Jelliss ⌂ @, St Leonards on Sea, Thursday, May 28, 2009, 18:39 (3790 days ago) @ David Turell

At the risk of being called a "smug atheist" I believe I need to reply to some points in David Turell's fisrt post here.

DT: "In earlier posts the attitude of atheists during discussions has been mentioned and in general those of us who are not atheists have been met by anger, nastiness, vituperation, etc. My many thanks to George who is not at all an example of what I have experienced, ..."

I know some atheists who take a militant attitude against religion, and I also know some humanists who would put me in that category. I would say I place a high value on seeking the truth, and hope that I have got it right, but am prepared to change my mind if evidence shows I was wrong.

I am reasonably secure in my materialist beliefs, and do tend to regard people who "persist in believing in that ancient superstition, the existence of a Creator" as deluded, or worse. And among the worse are those people at the so-called Discovery Institute whose aim is to undermine science in the name of religion. (See the famous wedge document.)

DT: "Now imagine that suddenly, without warning, science itself has begun to turn on you...cosmology has determined that the Universe had a beginning,"

I've never had any strong belief about the universe having a beginning or not. I don't see that this has any bearing on theism or atheism. I once argued on the existence or not of God with a Muslim debater, and his argument was based entirely on the infinity of God and the universe, in time and space.

DT: "the fundamental constants of physics and cosmology are turning out to have been incredibly fine tuned to support the existence of life,"

There is no evidence that the constants are really variables that can be tuned, even crudely. The value of pi is the way it is for mathematical reasons, not because God chose it that way. The same could well be true of other constants. A deeper understanding of physics could well predict them. I prefer this to the multiverse or evolved universe theories, for aesthetic reasons, but again I'm open to evidence proving I have made the wrong choice.

DT: "the stunning complexity and sophistication of the cell beggars any naturalistic explanation of its origin, and the neo-Darwinian synthesis is being called into question by unanswerable attacks on its explanatory power."

This has been the theme of many of DT's posts. I simply say this is just plain wrong. Certainly the mechanisms of the cell are mind-blowingly complicated, but that doesn't mean they couldn't have evolved (or developed if you prefer) by natural processes. The theories based on Darwin's insight are continually being improved, it is nowhere near any collapse that the DI and its apologists would like to see.

I am certainly not "one of those for whom being right is your highest value, one who has identified yourself as a member of the elite who know the obvious truth of things", in fact I doubt such an "elite" exists except in the fantasies of the IDers at the DI.

DT: "And now Guillermo Gonzalez adds fuel to this blaze by providing powerful evidence that the earth itself, the home of and support for human life, is in a highly improbable position perfect for the pursuit of scientific inquiry. Is it any wonder that this is a threat?"

Not knowing who Guillermo Gonzalez was I looked him up:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guillermo_Gonzalez_(astronomer)

Surprise, surprise! He is: "an astrophysicist and notable proponent of intelligent design, and is a professor at Grove City College, an evangelical Christian school, in Grove City, Pennsylvania. He is a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, considered the hub of the intelligent design movement, and a fellow with the International Society for Complexity, Information and Design, which also promotes intelligent design."

I believe DT is referring to his Privileged Planet ideas:

http://www.privilegedplanet.com/QandA.php

This all seems to be part of the anthropic paradox.

--
GPJ

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by David Turell @, Friday, May 29, 2009, 19:37 (3789 days ago) @ George Jelliss
edited by unknown, Friday, May 29, 2009, 19:43

I would say I place a high value on seeking the truth, and hope that I have got it right, but am prepared to change my mind if evidence shows I was wrong.


Right on!! I believe that fixed opinions are wrong. As science advances we all must be flexable

DT: "Now imagine that suddenly, without warning, science itself has begun to turn on you...cosmology has determined that the Universe had a beginning,"

I've never had any strong belief about the universe having a beginning or not. I don't see that this has any bearing on theism or atheism.

But I think it does. There are only a few possibilites: either the universe is eternal with Big Bangs and Big Crunches, and that gets rid of a deity in my opinion; the multiverse theory is based on an unproven and probably impossible-to-prove string theory, so that's out and George agrees for Occam's reasons; and finally, our space-time is flat, which theoretically allows life, but ends in expansion to the point that there is heat death, or a 'Big Rip' in space- time, but either way our sun dies in 5 billion years: Can we find another solar system in tha time and move there? And finally The Vic Stenger theory of a pre-existing space-time which is just like ours with virtual particles, so our Big Bang is possible by chance, a totally unprovable theory. If our universe arrived from a total void, there is a deity.

DT: "the fundamental constants of physics and cosmology are turning out to have been incredibly fine tuned to support the existence of life,"

There is no evidence that the constants are really variables that can be tuned, even crudely. The value of pi is the way it is for mathematical reasons, not because God chose it that way.

If one leaves out the term 'fine tuning' then one can simple say those values,100 of them, allow for life, and leave it at: 'why is that so?'

DT: "the stunning complexity and sophistication of the cell beggars any naturalistic explanation of its origin, and the neo-Darwinian synthesis is being called into question by unanswerable attacks on its explanatory power."

This has been the theme of many of DT's posts. I simply say this is just plain wrong. Certainly the mechanisms of the cell are mind-blowingly complicated, but that doesn't mean they couldn't have evolved (or developed if you prefer) by natural processes. The theories based on Darwin's insight are continually being improved, it is nowhere near any collapse that the DI and its apologists would like to see.


As science advances what it finds is more and more complexity. At some point the probability of chance accomplishing this will disappear. That is my expectation. The advance of science will undo Darwin, yet I am absolutely sure evolution occurred by some mechanism still hidden in DNA/RNA.

Not knowing who Guillermo Gonzalez was I looked him up:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guillermo_Gonzalez_(astronomer)

Surprise, surprise! He is: "an astrophysicist and notable proponent of intelligent design, and is a professor at Grove City College, an evangelical Christian school, in Grove City, Pennsylvania. He is a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, considered the hub of the intelligent design movement, and a fellow with the International Society for Complexity, Information and Design, which also promotes intelligent design."

He was thrown out of U. of Iowa for his beliefs, last year. I find some of the scientific conclusions by the ID folks to be quite valid. As a Jew I do not accept the Discovery background 'wedge document'.

I believe DT is referring to his Privileged Planet ideas:

Which add to the points made in "Rare Earth", written by two very secular scientists.

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by BBella @, Friday, May 29, 2009, 22:34 (3789 days ago) @ David Turell

There are only a few possibilites: either the universe is eternal with Big Bangs and Big Crunches, and that gets rid of a deity in my opinion;

Why would an eternal universe, with big bangs and crunches get rid of the idea of a deity for you? Are you saying you think of a deity as "One" outside looking in, a creator of, but not part of? If there is a higher power, deity as you call it, that creates all that IS, why then could there not be a deity that is all that IS, not just "One" outside what IS? Why is it unbelievable that an eternal being can dwell within the eternal universe of all that IS, the seen and unseen, and be a forever being that is ALL ONE, yet ever changing, which we all are a part of? Have you come to your assumption by evidence as well as by faith or, just by evidence?

If our universe arrived from a total void, there is a deity.

I don't know about a deity, but I do believe in the higher power within all that IS. If I would call this higher power a name it would be CHANGE, or IS. This is not a being that creates or is separate from creation, it is creation itself, meaning all that IS, seen and unseen, all that ever changes.

This deity that you believe may have created the universe also would've had to create the void before the big bang, correct? But,if this deity was before the void, then doesn't that really mean there was no void before the big bang? Void, as in, no thing? Do you think the deity created a space for the big bang? If so, that would mean, again, there was not a total void before the big bang, there was a deity and whatever space/dimension (etc) he/it/she dwells in.

Maybe there can be some clarification of what you mean by deity and total void?

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by David Turell @, Sunday, May 31, 2009, 23:08 (3787 days ago) @ BBella

There are only a few possibilites: either the universe is eternal with Big Bangs and Big Crunches, and that gets rid of a deity in my opinion;


Why would an eternal universe, with big bangs and crunches get rid of the idea of a deity for you?

If there is an automatic series on Big Bangs and Crunches, there is no need for a deity to intervene and run everything. Deities do things, not just sit and watch.

If our universe arrived from a total void, there is a deity.

I don't know about a deity, but I do believe in the higher power within all that IS.

I agree there is a greater intelligent power within and without everything.

This deity that you believe may have created the universe also would've had to create the void before the big bang, correct? But,if this deity was before the void, then doesn't that really mean there was no void before the big bang? Void, as in, no thing?

Void as in no thing, NOTHING, except a clump of quantum energy, the universal intelligence. If there is a false void, a la' Vic Stenger (and we cannot know that, as we cannot leave our universe to see what is going on outside) then he could be correct and our universe is simply a quantum perturbation, no deity needed. The reason I think he is wrong is, if our expanding space-time is pushing into a false vacuum, there should be quantum reactions beyond the edge of our event horizon with that false vacuum, and with improving instrumentation in satellites we perhaps should have seen something by now stirring out there. We'll find out in the next few years for sure.

There are just a few possibilities: A real vacuum outside this universe; a false vacuum from which we came; multiverses, which cannot be proven and are based on unproven string theory. This last one solves the Anthropic Principal problem, but that Principal is circular reasoning I think and worthless. It is only used to invent a way around a deity.

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by John Clinch @, Friday, June 19, 2009, 18:25 (3768 days ago) @ David Turell

Sorry I've been away, folks, and I haven't had a chance to respond to some of your interesting entries. Since you mention Why Us? by James LeFanu, I thought some of you may be interested in a little critique of this book I wrote recently, as follows. (It touches on the origin of life problem, incidentally.)

The more I reflect on science, pseudo-science and all sorts of quasi-religious woo-woo, the more I see a world in general content to bag the intellectual and applied gains of science and yet content to hugely ... even proudly - ignorant about the scientific method and its heuristics. I'm afraid that this book reveals Mr LeFanu as part of that world.

To be fair, he is good enough on the history of his subject and the lucidity of his account makes those parts of his book an engaging read. Why Us? contains just enough good science to convince the reader of his erudition but not enough, finally, to convince. What, after all, is his argument? For me, the red flag was right there at his first reference (one of many) to "materialist science." This is a term - like "Darwinism" ... that is a firm favourite of the pseudo-scientific and those with a mysterian or religious agenda. These terms are often used to imply that there is another sort of science or that Darwin's theory is just one of several, equally deserving of our attention. But what, exactly, are these theories and what does non-materialist science look like? LeFanu is predictably silent.

He doesn't even seem to understand the word "material." At one point, risibly, he refers to gravity as being a "non-material" force, a point I'll touch on later. He strains to make space for the supernatural, a grievous error if he wishes to be taken seriously as a writer on science. LeFanu stops short of spelling out which particular brand of woo-woo he wants to insert into our understanding of the world, but his constant pejorative references to "materialism" makes it clear that he dearly wishes for one.

It was plain to me from early on in the book that LeFanu has a hidden religious agenda: what's remarkable is that he was so unsophisticated in leading us to it. He makes the common, and profoundly misguided, error of supposing that because we have yet to explain an aspect of nature, it is unexplainable. He forgets that to base any conclusion on the gaps in our current knowledge is a foolish endeavour, almost certainly doomed to failure: after all, science is a work-in-progress, a mere few centuries old. To be sure, it may well be the case that there are in-principle limits to scientific investigation. It may well be, for instance, that we can never devise a technology to test string theory and the "hard problem of consciousness" may forever elude our grasp (as you are doubtless aware, this term refers to the problem as to how the three pound mound of jelly in our skulls translates into subjective experience). But it's way too early to call: it takes a peculiarly brave or arrogant person to pronounce on the end of science, let alone to draw metaphysical conclusions based on the gaps in our current understanding. The tide of advancing science, and the retreat of magical and religious explanations ought to provide sufficient warning. All phenomena of nature, after all, are natural. And the magisterium of science is all of nature, a point over which LeFanu is plainly confused.

To base a metaphysic on such a profound misreading of the scientific project is plain wrong. He just doesn't seem to get science: at one point he complains about children being forced to learn the leaden facts gleaned as a result of scientific discovery. Actually, I agree with him ... there is nothing more off-putting to young minds than the regurgitation of facts. But the point here is that science is essentially a method, not a set of cold facts. Its objectivity and openness make it the only reliable way of testing truth claims about the world and on that, the most important of all quests we have undertaken as a species, it has been spectacularly successful. It is designed to compensate for the all the biases and limitations of human thought that so frequently lead us to unreliable conclusions. And it's self-corrective. What would LeFanu prefer in its place? He is predictably, if disappointingly, silent on this - and the reason is that, deep down, he must realise that there is, and will only ever be, one show in town when it comes to Nature and that is scientific enquiry.

Cont'd

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by John Clinch @, Friday, June 19, 2009, 18:27 (3768 days ago) @ John Clinch

Part 2

Only a few weeks ago, we read of a new theory hypothesising about what had hitherto been a mystery: why there is just enough oxygen on this planet to support multi-cellular life ... the "great oxygenation event" that made it all possible. If LeFanu had addressed his mind to this problem, doubtless he would have said something like "we haven't the slightest idea" why the atmosphere all creatures breathe is composed of 21% of this highly unstable and reactive gas and then gone on to draw the same mysterian conclusion. And we find that there has been another recent discovery at Harvard of how protein molecules may have combined as a precursor to RNA, resolving yet another gap in our evolutionary knowledge. (Still so confident, Le Fanu and dhw, that the origin of life will remain forever beyond our grasp?).

Because his is a book about metaphysics pretending to be a book about science. If it was a bit more honest about its intent, it would at least come clean about this. But there's not a single reference to the wider philosophical framework, and none to epistemology or metaphysics. Remarkably, despite the fact that he discusses the hard problem of consciousness, he doesn't even reference the rich body of literature associated with philosophy of mind.

Of course, the man has a point of sorts, but he expresses it in such an odd way. As you are doubtless aware, Kant advocated a distinction between things as they appear to us and things as they are in themselves. I will take gravity, for instance, since LeFanu refers to it. Gravity is, on the Newtonian model, the attraction of one massive body to another and, on the Einsteinian model, better to be understood as a curvature of space-time. It is measurable and real and it is an obvious phenomenon of nature. Now, in an important sense we can't ever know what gravity is in itself but we sure as hell understand its phenomena in different (if imperfect) ways, even if we have yet to connect it with the most successful theory of all time ... that of quantum mechanics. LeFanu might as well have argued (it's unclear why he singled out gravity for special mention) that "we haven't the slightest idea" about the three other forces of nature ... the strong and weak nuclear forces and electromagnetism ... and called them "non-material" too. What can he mean? Surely he cannot mean that gravity is a spiritual force? He just makes his preposterous claim and leaves it hanging there, content to plant a seed of doubt with the unsuspecting reader.

The fundamental logical fallacy he commits throughout is that his argument, such that it is, is basically the argument from personal incredulity. How can this limited genome encode for human intelligence? How could evolution have produced such fecundity? How does this three pounds of jelly perform the natural miracle of consciousness? And yet, Mr LeFanu, we are here as a result of all of these processes. And we are finding out how al the time.

Actually, if he was more intellectually honest, he would address what is really going on in science. On the human genome project, yes, it was certainly a huge surprise to find that there was not a different order of magnitude more genes for humans as for fruit flies, and that much DNA appears to be "junk." But we've only just found this out. The current task is to establish exactly how this relatively limited recipe cooks up to such a richly diverse set of phenotypes. As it happens, I personally know someone (there are obviously many others) actually carrying out research into this field - about the process of morphology and epigenetics ... at the Wellcome Foundation. It's happening right now and we can be reasonably confident that we will have a very good idea some time later this century.

Cont'd

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by John Clinch @, Friday, June 19, 2009, 18:28 (3768 days ago) @ John Clinch

Part 3

The point at which I really wanted to throw the book across the room came in his discussion of evolution by natural selection which, he seems to admit at one point, is the explanation for the extraordinary biosphere (a position he then resiles from on the grounds that we don't yet have all the answers) and, in particular, his unjustified traducing of the personality of Charles Darwin. It's an ad hominem point he makes, of course, but Darwin was like the rest of us a man of his time and this is reflected in the language he uses about "savages" and "civilisation" and so on. But LeFanu's sneering criticism really won't do: Darwin was passionately concerned about slavery and what he saw of the maltreatment of "savages" in South America. In fact, his observations concerning the fundamental similarity of "primitive" peoples to Englishmen seems to have encouraged his thinking about the similarity and unity of all life on Earth. And, what's more, the science of genetics has since shown us that homo sapiens is one of the most homogenous species on Earth ... something that Darwin would not have been in the least bit surprised about.

And then, the killer ... the argument from final consequences that doesn't even work on its own terms. How low and wrongheaded can LeFanu get than to hold the theory of evolution by natural selection to account for the evils of "social Darwinism?" He stops short of blaming Darwin for the Holocaust (as his fellow-travellers, the creationists, are fond of doing) but only after covering evolution with such a mound of sticky poo with all its supposedly evil consequences that the ignorant reader is left with a very bad smell about it all. He refers, several times, to the "debasement" of mankind wrought by evolution. In what way evolution is meant to be debasing is unclear. LeFanu may regard it as a debasement to have revealed to us our origins as a tiny shrew-like creature about 65m years ago but I don't. I'm enormously humbled and wonder-struck. Darwin's incredible insight instils in me a humility and awe by which I feel a profound connection with this fragile world, a feeling bordering on the religious. I'm sorry that Mr LeFanu doesn't. He seems to prefer to find a justification for his religion in the old God-of-the-gaps. Some people, it seems, never learn.

But, of course, even if evolution did debase humanity, even if Darwin were the most evil social Darwinist about, even if evolution was a hypothesis designed to reinforce a vicious social hierarchy, racism and exploitation, it wouldn't be any less true for that. And the evidence is overwhelming: it is as true as gravity, however LeFanu may want to misrepresent it. (He often refers to the survival of the fittest and seems to interpret "the fittest" in the way the Nazis did ... i.e. as the strongest rather than the most adapted to the environment ... another revealing error.)

The fact that Darwin explicitly recognised, as all good scientists do, the weaknesses in his theory (the fact that the fossil record is not suffused with countless "transitional" forms) emphatically does not make the underlying theory wrong. Unwittingly (I'll give him the benefit of the doubt here), LeFanu here deploys the simplistic argument of the creationists and ID pseudo-scientists that the fossil record is just to like that. Actually, contrary to what these people assert, so-called "transitional" fossils get uncovered all the time ... and all in the places geologically that one would expect to find them. The modern classic is ambulocetus and we mustn't forget the stunning Darwinius masillae recently revealed. It would take one ... just one, mark you - to be found where it should not be to put a dent in evolutionary theory. But no ... what we find is a remarkable consilience right across the board. Time after time the theory is reinforced by a complex web of good evidence from different disciplines - by zoology, anthropology, homology, genetics, geology, population studies. The fact that the processes of speciation and abiogenesis are not yet fully understood does not displace evolution as really the basic architecture of our understanding of the living world ... the rest is detail. Moreover, an evolutionary approach can assist in our understanding of many social phenomena too (c.f. Dawkins' much misunderstood but important contribution, memetics.) LeFanu would dismiss it all with a wave of the hand, because it is incomplete, without anything to put in its place.

Cont'd

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by John Clinch @, Friday, June 19, 2009, 18:29 (3768 days ago) @ John Clinch

Part 4

Finally on evolution, LeFanu without a trace of irony focuses on the human eye. It's funny how anti-evolutionists always bring this one up. It formed the basis of much of William Paley's argument and it's oft-cited by ID'ers today as an example of what they call irreducible complexity. They love this point: they think it's so clever. Without one of the exquisitely perfect features of the eye, they say, the whole system would fail. LeFanu says something very similar: he calls it "the problem of perfection." But the human eye is actually a rather bad example. The optic nerve enters the eye in the middle of the retina, a very unhelpful place indeed. We have adapted a very good way of coping with this blind spot but it really isn't the place a designer would put it. It is, however, where you would expect to find it if the eye evolved by natural selection from light-sensitive cells on simpler organisms to an organ of such sensitive ability to enable our brains to perceive the world.

Further, there are good reasons for supposing that the whites of our eyes (something that other primates don't have) derives from our intensely social nature as a species, when it is easy to conceive how it may have been a matter of life or death that we could see exactly who was looking at whom and how, accordingly, trust could be built up within the group to withstand attack and to hunt and forage. But, of course, LeFanu would have no truck with that ... it smacks too much of sociobiology, which discipline he again dismisses with a wave of the hand and, again, for reasons that have nothing to do with science and everything to do with his vague moral outlook.

I'll grant him that the hard problem of consciousness is a tougher nut to crack. Scientists are at least honest that this presents a serious difficulty: no-one is making the over-extended claim that PET scans bring us significantly closer to cracking it. It is the one area in which scientists are most comfortable discussing with philosophers, accepting as they must that there may be in-principle limits to science here, for it is quite possible that however sophisticated the brain sciences become in explaining the workings of this astonishingly complex brain of ours, they may never take us closer to appreciating precisely how this produces subjective personal experience. Neuroscience will probably help explain certain aspects of mind ... such as the intriguing question of whether or not free will is an illusion ... but we may never properly appreciate how the firing of neurons is mind. Predictably, LeFanu draws yet another premature conclusion from this and declares himself a dualist (without the merest hint that there are enormous problems with this as a philosophical position.) For all that, he could just as easily adopt my position ... monism. For what it's worth, my own conviction is that neuroscience will explain more and more until finally we all agree that mind is just what the brain does, just as the heart pumps blood. It seems to me axiomatic that mind is part of matter. I like Dennett's quote: "Yes, we have a soul and it's made up of tiny robots." If LeFanu can't see the wonder and the beauty in that, then I feel a bit sorry for him.

Why this self-awareness gave us an evolutionary advantage is another remaining puzzle, but it plainly did. Self-evidently, science has yet to uncover the answers to many, many remaining questions and, of course, the answers it does provide throw up yet more questions. It will probably always do so but, I guess, it may grind to a halt one day. Not quite so soon, though, Mr LeFanu. We have the tantalising results of the first experiements at the LHC at CERN to look forward to and countless further discoveries in astrophysics and biology. We have quantum mechanics and relativity to reconcile and consciousness to explore. If he isn't salivating at the prosect, some of us are.

Whether or not we ever get to the "end of science", though, we may be entirely justified in supposing that there is, as LeFanu apparently believes, a self-organising creative metaphysical principle of the universe. In this connection, his book could have discussed the anthropic cosmological principle (something first formulated by Australian physicist Brandon Carter), or explored the evidence for the "fine-tuning" of natural forces necessary for the production of life, which would have been much more convincing in this regard. But, oddly, it didn't. Rather than consider the system as a whole, which for a seemingly religious man would be a much richer seam to mine, he prefers to shoe-horn into the gaps in our current understanding of nature an unnamed and unexplored force (as you know, he never actually uses the God word) that accounts for the rest.

Cont'd

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by John Clinch @, Friday, June 19, 2009, 18:30 (3768 days ago) @ John Clinch

Part 5 (final)

The irony of his position is that if such a force of nature is ever identified it will be science that does it. And if Mr LeFanu is there, he'll doubtless be standing on the sidelines, pointing out some other gap in our knowledge and declaiming, "Science as a project has failed since it has failed to explain that." He forgets Wittgenstein's dictum "There is nothing supernatural about the world, but that it is" and, as a consequence, makes a monumental category error.

LeFanu concludes his book with a passage lamenting the lack of "enchantment" in the world in the wake of "narrow, materialist" science. Viewed charitably, this is a sort of Romanticist reaction to what he perceives of as a reductionist and un-poetic rationalism. However, he seems to forget that the enchanted world was a demon-haunted one: in a world governed by pre-scientific thinking, where Man supposedly once stood proudly "on his pedestal," as LeFanu puts it, the consequences for advocating the wrong kind of magic were grave indeed. In the world of enchantment, Giordano Bruno was burnt alive in Rome in 1600 for his speculations on the universe, including on whether there were beings on other planets. Now, as a consequence of the debasing and narrow, materialistic science LeFanu rails against, we scan the skies heroically in the hope that we can confirm that same thing. I know which world I prefer.

It is perhaps a bit unfair to conclude with an ad hominem point but I will anyway. I've never read LeFanu's Telegraph column but I've done a bit of Googling. In his medical column, I learn, he has recommended that a reader visit an acupuncturist. He is also on record as advising parents not to have their children immunised with the MMR vaccine. And, so a paediatrician friend of mine has told me, he adopts a bizarre denialist position on shaken-baby syndrome. Are these the actions of a man that respects science? I think they are rather the actions of someone who doesn't properly understand it or who is happy to play fast-and-loose with it. Several of the people he mentions as influences at the end of his book are of the same mould (Rupert Sheldrake, for example is a well-known crank.)

Maverick LeFanu may be but, of course, that ought be another big red flag: mavericks are sometimes right but they are almost always wrong.

c.2009 John Clinch

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by dhw, Sunday, June 28, 2009, 08:12 (3760 days ago) @ John Clinch

John Clinch has kindly offered us his critique of James Le Fanu's book Why Us? This made for very interesting reading, and thank you for putting it on the forum. Of course it's dangerous to judge a book by its reviews, but on the assumption that you have not misrepresented Le Fanu's arguments, I have to say that many of the views you express strike a chord with me too, particularly in relation to personal attacks on Darwin and on the so-called evils of "social Darwinism". There are, however, some points in the critique itself which I would like to follow up.

You write that Lefanu "makes the common, and profoundly misguided, error of supposing that because we have yet to explain an aspect of nature, it is unexplainable. He forgets that to base any conclusion on the gaps in our current knowledge is a foolish endeavour, almost certainly doomed to failure." If that is indeed what Le Fanu says, I agree with you. However, there is a kind of doublethink going on here. You have said categorically that you are a monist and a materialist. Monism and materialism together add up to a conclusion, i.e. the only substance is material. As a materialist, you have therefore concluded that the gaps in our current knowledge will eventually be filled by material explanations. What do you base this conclusion on? Is it not an equally common and equally misguided error to assume that one's conclusions will be borne out before the evidence has been provided? (I am not arguing for theism. I am arguing for agnosticism.)

You wrote: "Darwin's incredible insight instils in me a humility and awe by which I feel a profound connection with this fragile world, a feeling bordering on the religious." Dawkins expresses similar sentiments in The God Delusion, and for the first time ever I warmed to him. It is a source of immense irritation when some theists assume that they alone feel a sense of awe and wonderment at the world around us. No matter how life came into existence, one can only gasp in amazement at its richness, its interconnectedness, and its astonishing powers of self-renewal. It's good to find that we have some common ground!

However, you wrote: "The fact that the processes of speciation and abiogenesis are not yet fully understood does not displace evolution as really the basic architecture of our understanding of the living world." I agree that evolution is at least part of the basic architecture, but once again ... if you bear in mind the implications of abiogenesis (the theory that life can spontaneously come into being from non-life) ... you are loading the dice. We know that speciation took place, but we do not know that abiogenesis took place, and to say it is "not yet fully understood" suggests that it is a fact which merely awaits explanation. I suspect that you simply haven't understood the enormity of the coincidence you believe in, and in any case once again you are drawing premature conclusions in the same way as Le Fanu.

On the other hand, your comments on the mysteries of the mind show that you are aware of how difficult it is to link certain phenomena to their material frameworks. In this context, you even go so far as to say that the "hard problem of consciousness" may forever elude our grasp ... although you rightly qualify that by saying "it's way too early to call". The problem for me, both with consciousness and with abiogenesis, is that what you describe as the gaps in our knowledge are at present too profound to justify belief in any theory ... materialistic or otherwise. You do, however, offer an intriguing reference to "a self-organising creative metaphysical principle of the universe", which sits a little oddly with your materialism. And so I'm now going to do something very risky. I'm going to reproduce a magic formula which had pretty disastrous consequences three months ago.

During your previous comeback, you reminded me that you were an agnostic and not an atheist. On March 19, under "Science vs. Religion", I addressed the following to you:
"All beliefs (and many disbeliefs) entail filling in the gaps..., and it's only non-beliefs that leave the gaps open. So if future science fills some in, beliefs/disbeliefs/non-beliefs may have to change. Nothing wrong with that. Agnosticism...isn't something you fight to defend. Its whole essence is that it's open. The gaps for me are the origin and complexities of life and the universe, and the (apparent) inexplicableness of certain human experiences and faculties. Perhaps you will tell us what gaps have led to your own agnosticism..., thereby preventing your commitment to theism or atheism.
P.S. In your response to David Turell, I see you describe yourself as a materialist and a monist. This suggests an unusual form of agnosticism. Please tell us more."

The result of this magic spell was that you disappeared for three months. I would hate to make you disappear again, but I will risk it. How about an answer?

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by David Turell @, Saturday, June 20, 2009, 19:00 (3767 days ago) @ John Clinch

that much DNA appears to be "junk." But we've only just found this out. The current task is to establish exactly how this relatively limited recipe cooks up to such a richly diverse set of phenotypes. As it happens, I personally know someone (there are obviously many others) actually carrying out research into this field - about the process of morphology and epigenetics ... at the Wellcome Foundation. It's happening right now and we can be reasonably confident that we will have a very good idea some time later this century.

Talk with your friend again. There are now six different types of interference and micro DNA's that help to manage gene expression. It appears that a great portion of 'junk' DNA will be useful RNA. I'm just finishing an article on Epigenetic Research in the Quarterly Review of Biololgy, June issue, that is more a compendium of the research than reaching conclusions at this point. There are four or five schemes of epigenetic systems, znd Lemarkism is making a comeback of sorts. There is viral junk, but how much true junk is unknown at this time.

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by David Turell @, Sunday, June 21, 2009, 22:48 (3766 days ago) @ David Turell

Talk with your friend again. There are now six different types of interference and micro DNA's that help to manage gene expression. It appears that a great portion of 'junk' DNA will be useful RNA. I'm just finishing an article on Epigenetic Research in the Quarterly Review of Biololgy, June issue, that is more a compendium of the research than reaching conclusions at this point. There are four or five schemes of epigenetic systems, znd Lemarkism is making a comeback of sorts. There is viral junk, but how much true junk is unknown at this time.

A summary of some of the material covered by the review article: The several types of epigenetic systems include: 1) inheritance though self-sustaining feedback loops, "metabolic circuits through which different patterns of activity can be maintained, resulting in alternative heritable cell phenotypes". The studies go back to 1957 in E. coli. 2) Structural inheritance by changes in 3-D protein folding passing from mother cell to daughter cell, studied in Paramecium in 1965. 3) Chromatin marking, methyl groups attached to DNA, "bound histone and non-histone proteins and associated RNA molecules". "DNA methylation is involved in many important functions: defense against genomic parasites, regulation and maintenance of gene activity patterns, stabilization of chromosomal structure, and DNA replication and repair." This is seen in both unicellar and multicellular organisms. 4) RNA mediated processes: a) gene silencing; b) guiding, targeting and assisting in transmitting variation in chromatin structure which is reproduced in daughter cells; c) "targeting DNA base sequences and guiding changes in them that are then replicated by DNA polymerases."

This 38-page article indicates how complex this area currently is, and that many years of research are ahead to sort all of this out and reach a greater degree of understanding.

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by John Clinch @, Monday, June 22, 2009, 11:17 (3766 days ago) @ David Turell

This is interesting, though I'm not as up to speed on the science as you are. My point simply was to say that it is a poor argument to look at the current gaps in our knowledge (here, concerning how organic matter arose from the inorganic) and draw premature conclusions that there must be a supernatural agency or "non-material" force or principle at play. The neat piece of mathematical research seems to put a serious dent in dhw's early entries on this point. Here we are, barely a year later, and significant progress is being made.

Now, it may well be that the conditions necessary for life to begin on Earth were vanishingly unlikely (to wit, Fred Hoyle and his jumbo jet analogy, always quoted by creationists - they get very excited when a real scientist seems to support their cause). I say it doesn't matter. With the discovery of more and more exo-planets, we learn how common planatery systems seem to be in this galaxy and, by extension, the Universe. We don't need the Drake equation to imagine the possibilities.

One cannot extrapolate from an example of one but the insights into how life developed here appear to show that the Universe is poised to produce life whenever the conditions are right. Mr LeFanu purports to learn lessons from science but he ignores the most important one of all - that there is nothing inherently special about the Earth or our place in the Universe. Why Us? Well, because we're here!

"That which we can expect to observe depends on the conditions necessary for our existence as observers" - the anthropic cosmological principle. It has been attacked as being a uselsss tautology but one can't help feeling LeFanu would have benefitted from its consideration.

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by David Turell @, Tuesday, June 23, 2009, 00:11 (3765 days ago) @ John Clinch

With the discovery of more and more exo-planets, we learn how common planatery systems seem to be in this galaxy and, by extension, the Universe. We don't need the Drake equation to imagine the possibilities.

One cannot extrapolate from an example of one but the insights into how life developed here appear to show that the Universe is poised to produce life whenever the conditions are right.

So far the planets discovered have not matched our home. And how difficult that match can be is shown in the book "Rare Earth",2000, by two very real scientists: Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee. I suggest reviewing it.

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by John Clinch @, Thursday, July 02, 2009, 11:36 (3756 days ago) @ David Turell

I am aware of the issues raised by that book. Paul Davies also discusses this issue in Are We Alone? I have no doubt that Earth is an extremely rare jewel.

However, as you are doubtless aware, the sun is one of 100bn stars in this galaxy, one of 100bn galaxies in the known Universe, a great many of which (we have learned recently) have solar systems. Another instance, surely, where something that from our vantage point seems vanishingly unlikely - life - is made probable by the sheer volume of possible environments that could potentially give rise to it throughout the Cosmos.

Plainly, we are trying to evaluate an utter unknown: how likely is life? It may seem, as Carl Sagan said, "an awful waste of space" to have absolutely no other intelligent life to keep us company but, in one important sense, it doesn't matter. We KNOW this is a life-producing Universe because we're here, on this pale blue dot in the blackness. The anthropic principle (a much misunderstood notion, it seems to me) reminds us of that.

What I'd be interested in exploring is what conclusion you would draw if it were firmly established that this was the only life-producing planet and whether that conclusion would alter if the opposite were proved - i.e. that (as I suspect) the Universe is teeming with life. It seems to me that, either way, we find ourselves in a life-producing Universe.

I wonder: is the crux of this that a "Rare Earth" view better supports the argument for God's intervention to create life here on Earth? If so, I don't think that's justified. If you say that life is so improbable that it couldn't have arisen "by chance" (or variants on this theme, as has been argued elswhere on this site), this seems to admit the possibility that it is literally a miracle - i.e. God intervening in the operation of Nature, physically, to create life. Whether chance or miraculous intervention occurs once or a million times seems to me to be irrelevant to the argument as to whether there is, or may be, a god. It's a blind alley.

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by dhw, Friday, July 03, 2009, 10:30 (3755 days ago) @ John Clinch

John writes: "Whether chance or miraculous intervention occurs once or a million times seems to me to be irrelevant to the argument as to whether there is, or may be, a god. It's a blind alley."

At the moment, we only know of life on Earth, and it does seem like a miracle. I can't understand how it could have happened, and so I remain simultaneously open to but sceptical of all explanations, including those of chance and of a god figure. But the essence of miracles is their extraordinariness. If it turned out that this one had occurred a million times, and there were a million Earths with a million evolutions, it would therefore cease to seem so extraordinary. I for one would then be very much inclined to embrace the atheist faith that under certain conditions there must be natural laws ... as yet unknown ... which cause life to emerge from non-life. It's amazing what an "if" can achieve!

(On the subject of miracles, I'm delighted that my magic spell has not caused you to disappear this time, and will look forward to your response.)

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by BBella @, Friday, July 03, 2009, 19:06 (3754 days ago) @ dhw

If it turned out that this one had occurred a million times, and there were a million Earths with a million evolutions, it would therefore cease to seem so extraordinary. I for one would then be very much inclined to embrace the atheist faith that under certain conditions there must be natural laws ... as yet unknown ... which cause life to emerge from non-life. It's amazing what an "if" can achieve!

What is the connection with a million earths to life emerging from non-life? "If" there are a million earth like planets in the universal solar system, this would not necessarily mean all life emerged from non-life. All life could be ever existing and ever evolving, couldn't it? Life emerging from non-life would be a real jump of evolution, wouldn't it? Some-thing from no-thing?

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by David Turell @, Friday, July 03, 2009, 19:26 (3754 days ago) @ BBella

All life could be ever existing and ever evolving, couldn't it? Life emerging from non-life would be a real jump of evolution, wouldn't it? Some-thing from no-thing?

Life is not ever-existing. That is exactly the problem. Inorganic chemicals are non-living. Organic chemicals are also non-living until they organize into life. Life leaves behind telltale signs of life as deposited waste products and corpses. The earliest on Earth of these substances is either 3.8-3.6 billion years old in Greenland. That is how long ago it is scientifically accepted that life appeared on Earth.

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by BBella @, Tuesday, July 21, 2009, 18:57 (3736 days ago) @ David Turell

All life could be ever existing and ever evolving, couldn't it? Life emerging from non-life would be a real jump of evolution, wouldn't it? Some-thing from no-thing?


Life is not ever-existing. That is exactly the problem. Inorganic chemicals are non-living. Organic chemicals are also non-living until they organize into life. Life leaves behind telltale signs of life as deposited waste products and corpses. The earliest on Earth of these substances is either 3.8-3.6 billion years old in Greenland. That is how long ago it is scientifically accepted that life appeared on Earth.>

New life has happened here...my daughter recently gave birth to a happy healthy baby boy and, since they live with us, it's amazing how much time and space one new life takes up in a household.

I did want to respond to the above David, thank you for your response and patience. Altho life (the substance of which you are speaking above) did appear on earth so many billions of years ago, the properties it took to create this life have been around much longer, which is what my comment was aiming at. In the sense that our new born baby's physical elements have been around since time began - or in my way of thinking - has always been. When I said "life" in the above comment, I was thinking more of the elements of life, what life is made of/from, rather than the being which breathes air. I think of the universe and all that IS as one breathing "life" form that is ever evolving ever living being with every element that is or ever will be within it's framework....which includes us.

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by David Turell @, Wednesday, July 22, 2009, 13:56 (3736 days ago) @ BBella

New life has happened here...my daughter recently gave birth to a happy healthy baby boy and, since they live with us, it's amazing how much time and space one new life takes up in a household.

Sounds like a wonderful 'new' household. Congratulations! I still view every birth as a miracle. In training I delivered about 75.

I think of the universe and all that IS as one breathing "life" form that is ever evolving ever living being with every element that is or ever will be within it's framework....which includes us.

A very believable mystical framework as a world view. Sometimes you have to give me a good shake to get me away from the pure science.

Speaking of pure science: imagine DNA and RNA following a construction plan for your new grandson! Truly amazing.

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by John Clinch @, Monday, July 06, 2009, 12:38 (3752 days ago) @ BBella

BBella says "Life emerging from non-life would be a real jump of evolution, wouldn't it? Some-thing from no-thing?"

But it wouldn't be "no-thing". It would be everything that exists, the physical fabric of the Universe out of which we arose and which we are. The Universe seems poised to allow life to arise in certain (doubtless very rare) conditions. From stardust, to the human mind. The amazing hypothesis is also the most obvious: we are as much a part of it as ground upon which we walk and the stars over our heads.

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by BBella @, Tuesday, July 07, 2009, 17:02 (3750 days ago) @ John Clinch

BBella says "Life emerging from non-life would be a real jump of evolution, wouldn't it? Some-thing from no-thing?"

But it wouldn't be "no-thing". It would be everything that exists, the physical fabric of the Universe out of which we arose and which we are. The Universe seems poised to allow life to arise in certain (doubtless very rare) conditions. From stardust, to the human mind. The amazing hypothesis is also the most obvious: we are as much a part of it as ground upon which we walk and the stars over our heads.

Yes, John, this is exactly my point. Life does not emerge from non-life or no thing, it emerges from all that is...as you put it- the physical fabric of the universe out of which we arose and which we [all] are. This is, we are, the ever existing, ever evoliving universe.

[dhw wrote:]This whole discussion has everything to do with belief, i.e. with what seems plausible to us.

I agree dhw, everything has to do with belief and with that which seems plausible to each individual.

In answer to BBella, I can only say that I would not dare to argue against the theory of the Big Bang, which is as far back as we can ever go. This has to mark a beginning, and the Earth has to have had a beginning, and so life on Earth has to have had a beginning. But of course "ever existing" and "ever evolving" can't be disproved, just as God can't be disproved.

I do not feel I am arguing against the theory of the Big Bang. Everything has it's beginning, but they all arise the same, from that which came before. This means to me there are no true "beginnings" only marked changes that we who are observers of these changes mark...all which is nothing more than one ever evolving Uni-verse.

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by dhw, Thursday, July 09, 2009, 08:23 (3749 days ago) @ BBella

BBella writes: I do not feel I am arguing against the theory of the Big Bang. Everything has its beginning, but they all arise the same, from that which came before. This means to me there are no true "beginnings" only marked changes that we who are observers of these changes mark...all which is nothing more than one ever evolving Uni-verse.

Although I can't argue against the concept of an ever evolving universe, I'm not sure why you want to distinguish so rigidly between "true beginnings" and changes. Prior to the Big Bang, we can assume there was no Earth. Prior to the cooling and stabilizing of the Earth, we can assume there was no life on Earth. A new planet (Earth) and a new development (life on Earth) mark two changes in the Universe and two beginnings.

You wrote earlier: "Life emerging from non-life would be a real jump of evolution, wouldn't it? Some-thing from no-thing." A real jump, yes, but non-life is not no-thing. The great question in this context is whether inanimate material can make itself animate. We all obviously accept that animation took place, or we wouldn't be here, but we have no evidence for any of the explanatory theories, and so the origin of life on Earth is still an unsolved mystery.

Your suggested solution to the mystery is that "all life could be ever existing and ever evolving", but without evidence of life elsewhere, we know only that there must have been a beginning here. If there were a million planets harbouring life and evolution, however, your theory would have backing, as would the atheist faith in unknown natural laws. From a neutral point of view, therefore, in our present state of ignorance one could argue that your theory is as plausible or implausible as any other, including abiogenesis, God, Amma and Nommo, earth-diver, hero twins, sky-father and earth-mother etc. As usual it simply boils down to what you personally find convincing. That's what all such beliefs boil down to, even if a large number of believers don't believe it!

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by John Clinch @, Thursday, July 09, 2009, 13:15 (3749 days ago) @ dhw

dhw refers to "the atheist faith in unknown natural laws"

I hope I am not quoting him out of context (he has accused me of that before!) but I think I'm justified in saying that he keeps using the word "faith" in this way in order to draw a parallel between the theistic and atheistic positions, all the better to dismiss them both as beliefs for which there is no evidence. But in saying that the view (which may be held by an atheist or a theist) that there's a natural explanation for a natural phenomenon is an act of "faith" is to conflate metaphysics with science. I think he is making a serious category error.

At the risk of being a bore, I will say again that the magisterium of science is all of Nature. I really don't think this point has been adequately addressed. There are many phenomena of nature that have yet to be explained. Leaving aside the intriguing question of whether laws of nature really exist "out there" or are human constructs, it would be a fool who declares that there can be no unknown "laws", or processes or phenomena, of nature.

Most scientists have views ... beliefs, if you prefer - about matters not yet proven or established, sometimes quite strongly held. You could say that it's what drives science forward. The scientist who holds a theory ... a belief, if you prefer - about something not yet proven concerning some phenomenon of nature is emphatically not in the same position as the person who simply says "Godunnit". Of course, the reason is because the scientist has a view that is falsifiable ... it can, in principle, be tested. To take a much-discussed example, the view that life arose from inorganic matter or that RNA had a hand in it, or whatever, represents a view that is in principle testable. (Interestingly, there has been some recent progress on this but that is beside the point). The test may be imperfect, but part of the role of science is to seek to perfect methodology.

The view that God intervened miraculously to kick-start life on planet Earth is not falsifiable. It is a true declaration of "faith", properly so-called. It can never be tested, in principle. (And it raises the God-of-the-gaps point, but that's a slightly different matter.)

Part of the problem here is the language. The words "faith" and belief" have different connotations but are often used interchangeably. In my opinion, this allows dhw to draw a spurious parallel where none should exist.

Incidentally, I think that what I term the strong atheist position ... a belief that there is no god or gods ... is a statement concerning metaphysics and is a faith statement. The weak atheist position ... a lack of belief in God ... is possibly not, but I'm open to persuasion on that. I think that is an interesting question. I hold to the weak atheist position with regard to the Judeo-Christian God but I prefer not to make any positive declaration about metaphysics. In part, I think humans lack the language (though it doesn't stop me speculating). To my mind, at least, that makes me agnostic.

It may have been said before, but what I say in this post is the key to this whole debate, is it not? (1) Atheism and theism concern metaphysics. (2) Science concerns nature. A scientist may be a theist, an atheist or an agnostic but would any sane scientist seriously disagree with the statement "all phenomena of nature are natural and therefore the province of science"? One is about faith, the other isn't. I think dhw is looking for God in the wrong place

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by dhw, Friday, July 10, 2009, 12:35 (3748 days ago) @ John Clinch

John has once more explained his monist materialist pantheist theist atheist form of agnosticism.

The above may sound ironic, but in fact I find myself very much in sympathy with most of your views. We are all nagged by the need for an explanation, and many of us lean in different directions at the same time. When you say that "there is nothing in our experience of Nature which should lead us to any particular conclusion", I agree with you completely, though probably beyond the bounds of what you would like me to agree to. I'll come back to this. And like yourself, I do not believe in Yahweh, Ra, Baal etc. or any of the gods worshipped by the many civilizations of the past and present.

However, it seems to me that unlike myself you have come to certain conclusions, and these become apparent through your challenging my use of "faith" when I talk of "atheist faith in unknown natural laws". Let's get one definition out of the way first: I don't accept your distinction between strong and weak atheism. Every definition of atheism that I can find entails disbelief, not lack of belief, in God. (Agnostics lack belief in God.) It doesn't matter if we disagree on this, but that is the sense in which I use the word in the above expression.

Even you say that such atheism "is a statement concerning metaphysics and is a faith statement". However, the context in which I make my claim is that of the origin of life, and despite the objections of Matt and BBella, I consider this to come down to a battle between chance and design. I prefer 'designer' to 'God', but I'm sure you will accept that what you call the strong atheist rejects the concept of a designer. This means that he believes chance (or unknown laws) to be the originator of life.

You are right that there is a difference between belief and faith. In religious terms, faith is a strong belief that a particular conscious power is responsible for our existence, although there is no logical or scientific proof of this. It's the latter circumstance which in my view turns belief into faith. The atheist has a strong belief that chance (or unknown natural laws) can produce life from non-life and establish a mechanism to produce hitherto unknown organs and faculties. There is no logical or scientific proof of this. I'm not even sure that this belief is falsifiable (there is no limit on the time of experimentation), but in any case that is irrelevant: we are dealing with the atheist's belief under present conditions of knowledge. So let me repeat your statement: "There is nothing in our experience of Nature which should lead us to any particular conclusion... All we have is the fact that we exist and the vastness of a pitiless Universe." But atheists have come to a conclusion which has no logical or scientific basis. For that reason I call it faith and put it on a par with religious faith.

"All phenomena of nature are natural and therefore the province of science." I don't think anyone could possibly disagree that phenomena of nature are natural, but we don't know the boundaries of nature. Again I agree with you completely that "it would be a fool who declares that there can be no unknown "laws", or processes or phenomena, of nature." But an atheist has already concluded that those unknown laws will confirm his view of the world. I think you have too. For instance you have concluded that all the phenomena we have subsumed under the heading of "paranormal" are as "ridiculous" as the concept of a transcendent being. But if there are unknown laws, processes, phenomena of nature, why have you concluded that they will not confirm the existence of, say, forms of communication or even of being, beyond what we now consider normal? How do you know the boundaries of nature?

In our discussions so far, you have frequently fallen back on a formula which you repeat in your final sentence: "I think dhw is looking for God in the wrong place." I am not looking for God. Like you, I am nagged by the need for explanations, and in my own quest for some kind of truth I too find no grounds for any particular conclusion. This keeps me open-minded (within reason) towards all kinds of human experiences and towards a variety of explanations. But because you have drawn conclusions, perhaps you are unable to see that it is your own approach that is prejudiced and not mine.

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by John Clinch @, Friday, July 10, 2009, 13:17 (3748 days ago) @ dhw

Touche, mon brave!

Yes, it does rather look as if I'm trying to have the best of all worlds, doesn't it? You have made some valid criticisms which I shall have to mull over and get back to you on.

In the meantime, I've posted another reply to one of your posts. I hope you take it in the spirit in which it was intended which was simply to point out that "anything goes" can't be the basis for any discussion - least of all on philosophy.

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by dhw, Friday, July 10, 2009, 21:09 (3747 days ago) @ John Clinch

John (in response to my last post:) Yes, it does look as if I'm trying to have the best of all worlds, doesn't it? You have made some valid criticisms which I shall have to mull over and get back to you on.

I appreciate your honesty. Unfortunately, your previous post took you back to your tone of scathing dismissal, which is always hard to take "in the right spirit", but I'm getting used to it! I had drafted this reply before I read the above, but I shall leave it as I wrote it and ask you too to take it in the right spirit.

You wrote: "Are you seriously suggesting that a scientific theory about the origins of life would have the same status, the same plausibility as the mythical mumbo-jumbo referred to above? Are you saying that it's all just a question of take-your-pick, that any is as good as another? That, because there is as yet no coherent theory of the origin of life, that the scientologist's world view (say) is as valid, for the purposes of this discussion, as the life-scientist's?"

Once again, I'm afraid, your prejudices shine through. Already you have dismissed the concept of a transcendent God as "ridiculous", and now you dismiss the religions of societies presumably unfamiliar to you as mumbo-jumbo. All the references I gave were to different religious explanations of creation, and I see all of them as variations on the same theme: a supreme being or beings responsible for our existence. Believers in a transcendent being called God or Allah would also consider these other religions to be ridiculous mumbo-jumbo, thus revealing their own prejudices, but I see all of them as very much on a par ... namely, as possible metaphors for a creative force we cannot understand. (There are many monotheists who don't take Genesis literally either. And while I'm in parentheses, I shan't deal with scientology, as I don't wish to be drawn into a libel suit, and in any case I don't know their theory about creation.)

In your less prejudiced vein you stated categorically that "there is nothing in our experience of Nature which should lead us to any particular conclusion". However, as I stated in my previous post, you continually confront us with your conclusions, and you state them not only with emphasis but even with disdain when they concern beliefs you do not share.

I do not believe any of the religious theories I mentioned, but I respect the basic principle for which they stand ... namely, the possibility of a supreme being or beings responsible for our existence. I do not believe in abiogenesis, but I respect those who do, and I would not call it ridiculous or mumbo-jumbo. However, from my agnostic standpoint, I continue to waver between chance and design, and this is the point at which your elevation of a scientific theory above a religious theory falls apart. Supposing the theory of abiogenesis is wrong (unlike you, I have drawn no conclusions, and consequently this remains a distinct possibility for me)? Supposing there is a designer? The theory that inanimate matter can spontaneously transform itself into living organisms with the potential for astonishing variations will seem just as "ridiculous" as Amma and Nommo seem to you. If you have already decided that this unproven theory is right, you confirm that you are prejudiced; if you haven't, then you must allow for it being wrong.

I agree with one of your statements, however: "There needs to be plausibility, evidence and reason." Of course I don't believe in "take-your-pick", but my parameters are a great deal more flexible than yours, and I certainly don't assume that, for instance, the beliefs of monotheists and polytheists lack plausibility, evidence and reason.

There are two other posts on which you have commented. I'm writing a separate reply to BBella ... whose ideas and personal experiences inspire the utmost respect in me ... and I'm sure David will give his own response to your extraordinary attack.

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by John Clinch @, Tuesday, July 14, 2009, 17:47 (3743 days ago) @ dhw

Dear, dear, dhw! What's eating you? It comes to something when we're arguing about the style of the argument rather than the substance. Well, David has posted his response to what you described as an extraordinary attack, which was neither extraordinary or an attack. Well, except an attack on pseudoscience certainly, which I loathe - I think for very good reason.

In my defence I plead Montaigne:- "There is no conversation more boring than the one where everybody agrees". I just think the differences are more interesting to explore than the similarities. An occupational hazard I guess.

Anyway, my convictions are borne out of many things ... but I'd like to think that "prejudice" (pre-judgement) isn't one of them. How does agnosticism prejudge an argument about the existence of a deity? If anyone does that, it is religionists who, not being interested in the basis for their belief, prejudge the matter utterly by cleaving to the beliefs of their forebears.

Granted, perhaps I should not have used "mumbo-jumbo". It was to dismiss too readily the desperate importance people attach to their mythos ... their taboo accounts of creation. I should, however, like to defend the right to ridicule religion. You should need no convincing that it was ... and is ... religion that is the cause of a great deal of avoidable suffering in the world. It was religionists ... not atheists - who, acting in the name of their religion, persecuted heretics and apostates and, yes, scientists; burned witches; who carried out savage pogroms against each other; who are blowing themselves up for speedy entry into paradise. It wasn't atheism that brought down the twin towers. For good people to do evil, it really helps if you have religion.

So, purely in terms of ethics, I think God-based morality deserves a good kicking. I consider that organised faiths have earned little but the ridicule and contempt of good people. Especially, perhaps, the preposterous faith of scientology. Was your comment about libel serious? You shouldn't be so risk-averse ... and don't let them bully you into silence. If they succeed in doing that, then doesn't that demonstrate in a small way that religion is defended by force and fear?

Right, back to the argument:-

You: "The theory that inanimate matter can spontaneously transform itself into living organisms with the potential for astonishing variations will seem just as "ridiculous" as Amma and Nommo seem to you. If you have already decided that this unproven theory is right, you confirm that you are prejudiced; if you haven't, then you must allow for it being wrong. How many things we held yesterday as articles of faith which today we tell as fables".

I couldn't disagree more. First, you are confusing the mythos and the logos. Amma and Nommo are mythical accounts (I had to check ... they are Dogon). They were never meant to be taken literally. It is the same with Genesis. Part of the absurdity of modern history is that as science has explained more and more, alternative religious accounts of creation have ossified into logos ... as a literal account of actual events. Remember Archbishop Usher's calculation of the date of creation as being 3pm on a day in October, 4004 BC? Now, that really is mumbo-jumbo! The Bronze Age tribe whose account it originally was ... the Hebrews ... never saw it the same way. My point is that they are explanations at different levels. Creation myths are myths ... true in the cultural context of the people who hold them, but not literal accounts.

You don't have to agree. However, any reasonable person would accept the proposition that science purports to be objective and literal. It is a claim about the world that can be falsified through observation, experiment and reason. The claims of religion, whatever their status, cannot be. They are different categories of statement. So, what is being done by physicists at the Sante Fe institute isn't just another creation story ... it is THE creation story, an attempt to discover what is REALLY there and how it REALLY started, each succeeding explanation merely a provisional account. The creation myths of the Native Americans who live in the hills around are not the same.

As for my "belief" (that word again) in abiogenesis, I will say this. There can be zero doubt that life arose from non-life. Even if panspermia happened, it arose somewhere from inanimate matter. The question is how. Of course we don't yet know the mechanism but, personally, I am absolutely confident that it wasn't a miracle ... a suspension of the laws of physics by a god. Why am I so confident? I look around the world and I see no miracles and conclude that that's not how the world works. The naturalistic presumption that natural forces are responsible simply accords with every other explanation for any other aspect of nature. The statement "all phenomena of nature are natural" requires no leap of faith: a miracle does. You have explained that, for reasons of personal incredulity alone, you cannot dismiss the miracle account. But the miracle account is a creation myth.

I will close with Montaigne: "Let us permit nature to have her way. She understands her business better than we do".

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by David Turell @, Wednesday, July 15, 2009, 02:12 (3743 days ago) @ John Clinch

Well, David has posted his response to what you described as an extraordinary attack, which was neither extraordinary or an attack. Well, except an attack on pseudoscience certainly, which I loathe - I think for very good reason.


John: I don't like pseudoscience any more than you do. I hope I have cleared up your obvious misunderstanding of my thoughts and motives. But if not completely clear, please see my latest response to Matt. Adler is my chosen guide. As you might image most doctors are rather short on philosophic training, although I once took care of a young medical student whose degree was in philosophy purposely as he intended to be a psychiatrist. Even stranger he was mixed up medically in the Manson case many years ago, while in training in Los Angeles.

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by dhw, Thursday, July 16, 2009, 07:56 (3742 days ago) @ John Clinch

John has mulled over my criticisms, and has responded. I agree that "the differences are more interesting to explore than the similarities", but am surprised to see how often you manage to come up with differences entirely of your own making. Let's go through the relevant points.

1) You wrote: "My convictions are borne out of many things ... but I'd like to think that "prejudice" (pre-judgement) isn't one of them. How does agnosticism prejudge the argument about the existence of a deity?"

An excellent question. So let me quote you (July 6 at 16.51): "The idea that a supernatural being like a "sky god" one day "decided" to kick-start life on Earth through a timely miracle is, frankly, preposterous to me." We'll come to "supernatural" later. There are many highly intelligent people, including scientists, who believe in a transcendent deity that did decide to kick-start life (i.e. by designing it). All the major monotheistic religions embrace this concept. At a stroke then, you dismiss the God of Judaism, Christianity and Islam as preposterous. Not a bad haul for an agnostic without prejudice.

2) Your next two paragraphs defend your right to "ridicule religion", and you list all the terrible things religious people have done. You will not find a single word of mine in defence of those terrible things, so why bring them up? However, to say that "organised faiths have earned little but the ridicule and contempt of good people" is another of those OTT Clinchisms that make for wonderfully lively debate but don't say much for the writer's sense of proportion. Are there no "good" Jews, Christians, Muslims ... or do the good ones all despise their own religions?

3) You say, quite rightly, that "Amma and Nommo are mythical accounts. They were never meant to be taken literally. It is the same with Genesis."
I wrote that these and the other tales I referred to were "variations on the same theme: a supreme being or beings responsible for our existence [...] I see all of them as very much on a par ... namely, as possible metaphors for a creative force we cannot understand. (There are many monotheists who don't take Genesis literally either.)" There is no difference between us here. (Incidentally, your wise saying about articles of faith becoming fables was wrongly attributed to me.) My point was that if the theory of abiogenesis is wrong, its reliance on chance to create life will seem just as ridiculous as these myths (I called them metaphors) now seem to you. The latter all centre on the concept of conscious creators, and that is why I have lumped all the theistic religions together, and why I do not accept that a genuine agnostic, devoid of prejudice, would dismiss them as preposterous, or as mumbo-jumbo.

4) You wrote: "Any reasonable person would accept the proposition that science purports to be objective and literal." It does indeed ... or at least scientists do ... though 'purport' is an interesting choice of words. What you call THE creation story, and "the attempt to discover what is REALLY there and how it REALLY started" is an exciting quest. No dispute here. And I also agree that life arose from non-life, although I'll keep a sympathetic corner free for BBella's theory. One day scientists may well crack the code. But they will not be able to answer the ultimate question of whether what is REALLY there and how it REALLY started came about by chance or by design, which takes us back to (3) and the conclusion you have already drawn, even though you purport to be without prejudice.

5) On the subject of the supernatural (which I would equate with the paranormal) I wrote to you on 10 July at 12.35, to illustrate your prejudice: "For instance, you have concluded that all the phenomena we have subsumed under the heading of "paranormal" are as "ridiculous" as the concept of a transcendent being. But if there are unknown laws, processes, phenomena of nature, why have you concluded that they will not confirm the existence of, say, forms of communication or even of being, beyond what we now consider normal? How do you know the boundaries of nature?" You have not responded.

In brief, agnosticism refrains from drawing conclusions about the existence and nature of God. Your posts are riddled with conclusions, and yet you see yourself as an agnostic who does not make prejudgements. However, redemption is round the corner. 10 July at 13.17 ... a moment to savour: "Yes, it does rather look as if I'm trying to have the best of all worlds, doesn't it? You have made some valid criticisms...." Hallelujah! Perhaps you'd like to say what they are, if they're not as listed above.

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by John Clinch @, Monday, July 20, 2009, 11:01 (3738 days ago) @ dhw

Thanks, dhw. I think there are real differences that I'm quite sure I haven't made up! But my views on the sky god are not prejudices but conclusions: if I may say, you seem to be using the term to apply to any strongly expressed view with which you disagree. I'm very sorry but I do, speaking personally, find the concept of a transcendental being preposterous. What I have not yet articulated is that I also find the idea of a meaningless Universe fairly preposterous too. There you are.

And I do dismiss the transcendental claims of the three monotheistic faiths, entirely proportionately in my view. I don't do so for moral reasons though I would have plenty of material if I did. They are responsible for a great deal of evil and quite often I wish they would just shut up so the world can move on without them. I don't think they are entitled to any special privilege from criticism and I won't ever shirk from doing so. Yes, there are good Muslims etc but for good people to do evil, real nasty evil - you really need religion. Wasn't it Pascal who said that men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction? Take a look around you. Do you want to be associated with these appalling people?

I know that many intelligent people believe in God. So what? If you want to go down that road, you have to bear in mind that it is not theism but atheism that correlates with higher intelligence. The fact is that the more educated and intelligent a person is, the more likely she is to be an unbeliever. Hence, lack of belief is dramatically higher among scientists than it is in the general population. That is not evidence of its truth, of course, but only to address your point.

I just don't get your argument about creation myths. There is no "theory of abiogenesis": there is work to try to understand how life may have started. And when the work is more advanced, there may be different theories concerning the detail. These scientific endeavours are not in the same category as creation myths you referred to: one makes predictions, the other just says Godunnit. Your attempt to equate the two simply fails to convince. And, what's more, leaves the door conveniently open for ID for which there CAN BE no evidence. Further, it cannot make predictions. How do you answer this point? It seems to present a fundamental flaw for you.

As for that old chestnut about the paranormal, in my considered view, it really is a rather pathetic pseudoscientific dead-end. Sometimes, people do make predictions associated with the paranormal but then we find that there's no good evidence to support them! There has never been a single piece of good evidence whatsoever for ESP, telepathy, clairvoyance etc and, significantly, no plausible mechanism has ever been advanced to suggest how it might work ... a significant distinction which places it apart from proper science. And ... big red flag here - it's emotionally satisfying, flattering and feeding into our wishes and desires to connect and live after death and, for that reason alone, we need to regard its siren claims with even greater suspicion and demand a high standard of objective proof. Yet the proponents of this stuff are very content to accept lamentably poor evidence, often because there is money to be made from it and, boy, does it sell! Enough said. I know and believe it to be nonsense. Now, that's not "prejudice": it is a rational conclusion based upon my experience of life. You believe in woo-woo if you want (I once did ... I get its appeal), but I just don't think it's real.

Besides, ontologically, the supernatural just cannot form part of nature. If you equate the paranormal with the supernatural, as you say you do, can you explain how that would work, then? If you can't, upon what basis do you think it could it ever form part of real, lived experience in this (natural) world?

You ask what the boundaries of nature are but I'm not sure I understand this question. Nature is the cosmos ... all there is, all there was and all there ever will be. I understand that this Universe has boundaries but don't ask me to explain it in astrophysical terms. But, by definition, it cannot include the SUPERnatural: to say so simply involves self-contradiction. Isn't to say so philosophically incoherent?

Your criticisms of my metaphysical ramblings, on the other hand, are entirely justified. I should have heeded Wittgenstein and remained silent. I withdraw it all and will shut up on the matter!

By the way, "purport" was deliberately use of language. Science DOES purport to be objective and literal but it is conducted by fallible humans with their jealousies, rivalries and the occasional sacred cows. The whole point is that, as a discipline, it will correct for the biases and limitations of human thought. Bad science gets found out and that is how progress is made.

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by dhw, Wednesday, July 22, 2009, 08:55 (3736 days ago) @ John Clinch

My thanks to John Clinch for his detailed reply to my criticisms posted on 16 July.

As has happened before, when we get down to specifics, we actually agree on quite a number of things, and it may well be that some of the differences are a matter of degree and style rather than substance. I can understand it if someone doesn't believe in the God of the three main monotheistic religions. I don't either (= agnosticism), though I don't disbelieve (= atheism). But I have never heard of an agnostic who was prepared to dismiss the idea as "preposterous" (= radical atheism).

On the other hand, I'm intrigued by the fact that you find the idea of a meaningless Universe "fairly preposterous". I would very much like to know what kind of "meaning" you think the Universe might have.

I share your contempt for the evil that results from religion (as do many religious people), and also I have no problem when you say that "religion is not entitled to any special privilege from criticism". I have done my fair share of that myself. I find your equation of intelligence with atheism very dubious, however. What criteria did your pollsters use to measure intelligence? The reason why I mentioned intelligence myself had nothing to do with "evidence". It's simply that in my own state of ignorance I would not dream of ridiculing the many intelligent people, including scientists, who do believe in God ... any more than I would ridicule an atheist for his faith in chance (although I know the word "faith" raises the hackles!). My point is that I find it impossible to associate agnosticism with such ridicule. Perhaps I can simply persuade you to stop thinking of yourself as an agnostic. You have invented a new approach which we might call clinathepanism ... a mixture of radical atheism and tentative "Spinozistic pantheism".

You did not understand my argument about creation myths. I'm not equating these metaphors with "scientific endeavours". You have dismissed the "sky-god" creation story as preposterous. The parallel (not equation) that I drew was that if there really is a conscious creator (agnostics don't normally reject the possibility), the atheist belief that Chancedunit will seem equally preposterous, along the lines of: "How could anyone ever have believed that the most complicated computer in the world spontaneously assembled itself without a designer?" (Reminder: I don't believe or disbelieve either theory.)

As regards "abiogenesis", sometimes people use it to refer to the study of the origin of life, but it is indeed a theory (hypothesis if you prefer): namely, that life can come into being from non-living materials ... as opposed to biogenesis, which is the theory that life can only come into being from other living things (BBella might like that one). However, I use it to mean the theory that life can come into being spontaneously from non-living materials. It's the spontaneity that is crucial to the atheist argument. This is mainly a matter of linguistic convenience, because although I accept that it's a cause of misunderstanding, I can't think of a simpler way of referring to the theory that life originated by accident.

Your dismissal of the "paranormal" ("I know and believe it to be nonsense") is of course your affair ... although your use of "know" puts you on a par with those who say, "I know God exists." It amazes me that an agnostic can know so much! Where we might possibly come to an understanding, though, is on the boundaries of nature. I dislike the terms "supernatural" and "paranormal". The vast proportion of our universe is unknown to us, and we're learning new things about it all the time, so we don't know the limitations of the "natural". Similarly, there are great gaps in our knowledge of life on Earth ... we don't know how it began, and we can't explain phenomena like consciousness, will, memory, emotions, ideas. They're all associated with various areas of the brain, but we don't know how blobs of matter can generate them. Nor do we know what it is that binds the self together and gives it an overall identity. I make decisions which bring all parts of me into play, but what is the "I" and "me"? In this question I see another possible metaphor: the universe as a gigantic unit, bound together like me by some sort of mind. This may be what you mean by the "immanent" god in which you do not disbelieve. I can tie it in with unexplained instances of communication, and with NDEs and OBEs. I can. That doesn't mean that I do, or that I want to. I'm looking for explanations, and it's one that I'm not able to dismiss: a cosmos with consciousness, of which I am a microcosmic but conjoined part. It's just one of many possibilities, but it may help to explain why I don't like the distinction between natural and supernatural. It could all be natural. In your post of 09 July at 13.15, you wrote: "It would be a fool who declares that there can be no unknown "laws", or processes or phenomena, of nature". That is precisely the point I'm making. How can we prejudge what constitutes natural/supernatural when we know so little of Nature?

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by BBella @, Thursday, July 09, 2009, 22:05 (3748 days ago) @ dhw

BBella writes: I do not feel I am arguing against the theory of the Big Bang. Everything has its beginning, but they all arise the same, from that which came before. This means to me there are no true "beginnings" only marked changes that we who are observers of these changes mark...all which is nothing more than one ever evolving Uni-verse.

Although I can't argue against the concept of an ever evolving universe, I'm not sure why you want to distinguish so rigidly between "true beginnings" and changes. Prior to the Big Bang, we can assume there was no Earth. Prior to the cooling and stabilizing of the Earth, we can assume there was no life on Earth. A new planet (Earth) and a new development (life on Earth) mark two changes in the Universe and two beginnings.

My whole point about changes and beginnings is that everything that is comes from what was before. There always was the soup mix to make the soup. We can call it soup but it is still what it was before it was soup. This says to me there was never a time there was no thing. Everything is made up of what comes before. This is the only real point I am making.


You wrote earlier: "Life emerging from non-life would be a real jump of evolution, wouldn't it? Some-thing from no-thing." A real jump, yes, but non-life is not no-thing. The great question in this context is whether inanimate material can make itself animate. We all obviously accept that animation took place, or we wouldn't be here, but we have no evidence for any of the explanatory theories, and so the origin of life on Earth is still an unsolved mystery.

Your suggested solution to the mystery is that "all life could be ever existing and ever evolving", but without evidence of life elsewhere, we know only that there must have been a beginning here.

My point (not expressed well) is that whatever ingredients it took to bring about life (however long ago) has always been in existence. The ingredients has always been. Time and the evolution/forces of nature have brought about what we now have here on earth from the ingredients that always existed. If this planet has been seeded by another race on another planet or, if have evolved alone...whichever is true, we still are the product of what already existed before us.

If there were a million planets harbouring life and evolution, however, your theory would have backing, as would the atheist faith in unknown natural laws.

There could be life and evolution in other places or there could just be life and evolution in this one place on earth. Why would a million planets harboring life back up what I'm saying and life existing alone on earth not back up what I am saying?

From a neutral point of view, therefore, in our present state of ignorance one could argue that your theory is as plausible or implausible as any other, including abiogenesis, God, Amma and Nommo, earth-diver, hero twins, sky-father and earth-mother etc. As usual it simply boils down to what you personally find convincing. That's what all such beliefs boil down to, even if a large number of believers don't believe it!

I definitely agree that how I think things are is only my own personal thoughts, no more no less. It is slightly different from some and similar to others. I am only expressing what I think, and what I think is that I find it very hard to accept everything that 'IS' came from nothing, or life as we know it is a "new" thing (from our own personal beginning). I see everything that is, including life, the same one universe (all that is) ever evolving in multifaceted ways. If I were to say what I think God is, if there were such, it would be all that is. No one force, no one thing, just all that is.

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by dhw, Friday, July 10, 2009, 21:20 (3747 days ago) @ BBella

BBella points out that "everything is made up of what comes before" and that "there always was the soup mix to make the soup." I don't have a problem with that.

You ask: "Why would a million planets harbouring life back up what I'm saying and life existing alone on earth not back up what I'm saying?"

I was not referring to the ingredients theory but to the idea that LIFE could be ever existing and ever evolving. If life had always existed, we would expect to find evidence of it elsewhere, but (so far) there is no sign of that. The only evidence we have is of life on Earth. If science is to be trusted (and on this issue I trust science completely), both the Earth and life on Earth have had a limited span, and this doesn't back the theory that life has gone on for ever. A million planets with life would not prove your theory, but they would remove one argument against it, and in my view would add enormously to its plausibility.

John Clinch has rightly highlighted your closing comment: "If I were to say what I think God is, if there were such, it would be all that is. No one force, no one thing, just all that is." As I've said before, I see this as a form of Pantheism, which I find very attractive, although it still leaves a lot of questions open. Among these is, as ever, how life arose from non-life (still a problem for me, since I'm far from convinced by your suggestion that life may have gone on for ever), whether the universe has a consciousness of its own, and whether there are dimensions and forms of existence beyond those that we know.

In view of John's last post, I'd like to make it clear that the list of alternative theories I offered was not meant in any way to belittle your own. There are millions of people who believe in a god or gods, and I am in no position to dismiss any of their theories. They find theirs as plausible as you find yours and as atheists find abiogenesis, and I only wished to say that it boils down to what one finds convincing for oneself.

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by John Clinch @, Friday, July 10, 2009, 10:31 (3748 days ago) @ dhw

In my keenness to respond to dhw's mis-characterization of a theory about a law of nature as being equivalent to "faith", I almost missed this gem from him:-

"From a neutral point of view, therefore, in our present state of ignorance one could argue that your theory is as plausible or implausible as any other, including abiogenesis, God, Amma and Nommo, earth-diver, hero twins, sky-father and earth-mother etc. As usual it simply boils down to what you personally find convincing. That's what all such beliefs boil down to, even if a large number of believers don't believe it!"

Sorry, but this is breathtaking! Are you seriously suggesting that a scientific theory about the origins of life would have the same status, the same plausibility as the mythical mumbo-jumbo referred to above? Are you saying that it's all just a question of take-your-pick, that any is as good as another? That, because there is as yet no coherent theory of the origin of life, that the scientologist's world-view (say) is as valid, for the purposes of this discussion, as the life-scientist's?

Yes, one "could argue" that but you'd be taking a novel direction in this debate straight to relativism, post-modernity and other such latter-day heresies where you start with Derrida and you end up with a school debate when we all shout "well, that's just your opinion!"

So, BBella, I think you're being too easy on dhw. It's not what all such beliefs boil down to. There needs to be plausibility, evidence and reason.

Incidentally, your response to dhw concluded with a simple statement of great profundity:-

"If I were to say what I think God is, if there were such, it would be all that is. No one force, no one thing, just all that is."

I couldn't have put it better myself - and didn't!

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by John Clinch @, Monday, July 06, 2009, 16:51 (3751 days ago) @ dhw

dhw asks me why I am a materialist and a monist. Thank you - it's a huge question but I'm happy to try a brief explanation. Maybe a good place to start is by reminding him of the Dawkins' quote he posted a while back:-

"The evolution of complex life, indeed its very existence in a universe obeying physical laws, is wonderfully surprising. [...] Think about it. On one planet, and possibly only one planet in the entire universe, molecules that would normally make nothing more complicated than a chunk of rock, gather themselves together into chunks of rock-sized matter of such staggering complexity that they are capable of running, jumping, swimming, flying, seeing, hearing, capturing and eating other such animated chunks of complexity; capable in some cases of thinking and feeling, and falling in love with yet other chunks of complex matter."

This is the amazing hypothesis: we are the living embodiment of the fact that matter, stardust, can think and feel. We have discovered that we have no need for supernatural agencies or other "substances" to explain any aspect of it, as was the norm in the pre-scientific age. Not only is there no evidence for the existence of miracles, supernatural intervention or, in fact, anything outside "Nature" at all ... there is no need for any such evidence. We have indeed found that all phenomena of Nature are natural. Nature is all - all we have, all we are and all we ever will be. So I'm a materialist simply because I do not think there exists anything other than material: our souls inhere within our brains. And it seems that the weight of evidence and 300 years of science is behind me. If the facts change, I will change my mind. Until then, I'm with Joni Mitchell: we are literally stardust.

And, philosophically, I'm with Spinoza: there is only one "substance" in Nature. I deplore dualism (which Spinoza demolished in his Ethics), the idea that mind is a substance fundamentally distinct from matter. (Where exactly is it, then, M. Descartes?). Despite its enduring popularity (explicable, perhaps, because children all seem to hold it instinctively) dualism is philosophically very difficult to defend. Yet it is the basis for all supernatural belief and belief in the existence of "paranormal" activity like NDEs. When you think about it, you have to be a radical dualist to believe in life after death or to think that your mind could wander around a hospital unsupported by your brain (and closely followed by your eyes!). With all due respect to the True Believers, I think it's nonsense on stilts. So I'm a monist too.

I'm not a theist. I don't believe in miracles (for the reasons Hume brilliantly articulated). The idea that a supernatural being like a "sky god" one day "decided" to kick-start life on Earth through a timely miracle is, frankly, preposterous to me. I am prepared to admit to a continuing streak of pantheism not because I think Nature is wholly good but because the fact that Nature is is supernatural (as Wittgenstein said). Spinoza was a pantheist, taking his "one substance" idea to its logical conclusion. He was maligned as an atheist in his day but a pantheist is not an atheist. At the end of the day, I guess it is my inability to let go of pantheism that distinguishes me from the atheist. Of course, it doesn't dispose of the problem of evil or any of the other traditional objections to theism. But "agnostic" is still a better ascription than "pantheist" for me because I'm not a positive believer in any theological worldview and I genuinely believe that nothing can be known about the nature of God, if God can be said to exist in any meaningful sense ... the classic definition of agnosticism.

Can I try to put you right about one thing: however you may want to characterise them as such, atheists are not, and cannot be, dogmatists. It may also be helpful if we were to distinguish the strong and weak atheist positions. The weak atheist does not believe in "God" (with a minor tweak, that's me). The strong atheist believes that there is no god or gods. You call that faith - but I think that's pushing it.

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by dhw, Tuesday, July 07, 2009, 11:16 (3751 days ago) @ John Clinch

John writes: dhw asks me why I am a materialist and a monist.

Well, no, not exactly. What intrigues me is the fact that you insisted you were an agnostic, not an atheist, but later described yourself as a materialist and a monist. I wrote: "This suggests an unusual form of agnosticism. Please tell us more." I have no problem understanding that materialists "do not think there exists anything other than material", or that monists believe "there is only one 'substance' in Nature", or that monist materialists find the idea of a supernatural being "frankly preposterous". It's the link to agnosticism that has me foxed.

You go on: "I genuinely believe that nothing can be known about the nature of God, if God can be said to exist in any meaningful sense ... the classic definition of agnosticism." Aside from the vagueness of "in any meaningful sense", a monist materialist would have to say that if there is a God he can only be material. How do you know, if as an agnostic you know nothing about the nature of God?

Pantheism (which you can't let go of) equates God and Nature, but if nothing can be known about the nature of God, an agnostic can hardly say God is Nature. In fact, the classic definition of agnosticism is the impossibility of knowing whether God exists or not, and I doubt if any of us would deny that Nature exists.

You wrote: "Can I try to put you right about one thing: however you may want to characterise them as such, atheists are not, and cannot be, dogmatists." Thank you for trying to put me right. Here are some further extracts from your last post: "Not only is there no evidence for the existence of miracles, supernatural intervention or, in fact, anything outside "Nature" at all ... there is no need for any such evidence. We have indeed found that all phenomena of Nature are natural. Nature is all ... all we have, all we are and all we ever will be....our souls inhere within our brains. And it seems that the weight of evidence and 300 years of science is behind me...The idea that a supernatural being like a "sky god" one day "decided" to kick-start life on Earth through a timely miracle is, frankly, preposterous to me."

I hesitate to try to put you right about anything, but here is a dictionary definition of 'dogmatic': "forcibly asserted as if authoritative and unchallengeable". Agnostics are people who, because they do not know whether God exists, let alone what might be his nature if he does, keep an open mind on all matters relating to his existence and nature. When I read the above, I can't detect a single trace of agnosticism. I don't think I need to spell out what I do detect.

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by John Clinch @, Wednesday, July 08, 2009, 11:32 (3750 days ago) @ dhw

Thank you, dhw, for pointing out my contradictions. I mean it: one never normally gets to put one's views on the line, as it were, and I haven't been articulating mine very well.

I never claimed that matters theological were not paradoxical and I am always open to changing my mind and often do. I'll have another stab and maybe you can tell me what you think:

I think what I mean is that what we observe is Nature and only Nature (materialism). I witness and experience nothing outside of it (monism). Wittgenstein's dictum sums it up beautifully: "There is nothing supernatural about the world but that it is". He also famously said "whereof we cannot speak, thereof we should be silent" and maybe I should just shut up right now!

Let's run with it, though. Nagging away is the idea that something is needed to explain why you start with a quark and you "end" with a jaguar - or a soul. Arguably, the brute fact of the existence of the world invites an ultimate explanation that one may prefer to describe as transcendent ("the Transcendent God") or, alternatively (or maybe in addition), an immanent creative principle that inheres within Nature of which we can know nothing ("the Immanent God"). Here, we are rudderless, I'm afraid. There is nothing in our experience of Nature which should lead us to any particular conclusion - not miracles, not facile "Godunnit" dogmas, not human goodness and certainly not the meretricious answers provided by "religion" - nothing. All we have is the fact that we exist and the vastness of a pitiless Universe.

My ham-fisted, and periodic, attachment to pantheism is but a rather pathetic and necessarily limited response to the eternal question. With my human intellectual limitations, I can't bring myself to accept Nature-as-God but I can't fully accept that Nature requires no explanation either and I am sometimes gripped by an inexplicable conviction that Spinozistic pantheism was grappling towards a profound, if paradoxical, solution. So, I have to conclude that I'm agnostic on the question of an Immanent God, though tending towards theism.

I have in the past been persauded by panentheism, that it may be meaningful to posit "God" as immanent AND transcendent but then I catch myself agreeing that God-as-a-transcendent being seems to me an utterly ridiculous concept. I'm falling between two stools here - an inability to accept the western "sky god" concept and an inability to just accept the pointless plentiude of existence, which seems to follow from atheism. Like you in a different context, I'm caught between what seems to be two intellectually unsatisfactory conclusions - hence I am agnostic on the question of a Transcendent God, though tending towards atheism.

But I believe in the Truth, whatever that is - to some, that makes me a theist.
I think its time we defined our terms. I'm not agnostic on the quesion of a belief in Yahweh, or Ra, or Baal, or the Trinity. If any of those are what is meant by "God", I'm very clear - I'm an atheist. But that's not the whole answer. Is this any clearer? Probably not!

[PS. I simply meant that atheists have no dogmas - so, they are not formally "dogmatic" but, of course, they can and are often are forceful etc - thank God!]

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by David Turell @, Friday, July 03, 2009, 17:24 (3754 days ago) @ John Clinch
edited by unknown, Friday, July 03, 2009, 18:17

I have no doubt that Earth is an extremely rare jewel.

I agree completely, and you are right. That is the issue.

- life - is made probable by the sheer volume of possible environments that could potentially give rise to it throughout the Cosmos.

This I doubt. Rare Earth is very exact in describing all of the Earth's attributes that allow life on this planet: i.e., Most solar systems will not have such a planet, since the solar system must be iron/nickel rich, and it appears that few are. Also the solar system must be in the outer 'habitable portion' of its galaxy. "Privileged Planet" (I've not read it) makes much of this because it allows us to study the universe through a 'thin' portion of the galaxy, and then infers 'God did it". I find that a weak argument.

We KNOW this is a life-producing Universe because we're here, on this pale blue dot in the blackness. The anthropic principle (a much misunderstood notion, it seems to me) reminds us of that.

That is why I don't consider the anthropic principal worth much. your first sentense is more to the point.

What I'd be interested in exploring is what conclusion you would draw if it were firmly established that this was the only life-producing planet and whether that conclusion would alter if the opposite were proved - i.e. that (as I suspect) the Universe is teeming with life. It seems to me that, either way, we find ourselves in a life-producing Universe.

If the Universe is teeming with life, how come SETI hasn't had a result? I base my conclusions on a belief that life is rare and may be confined to Earth only. Now, if life is common through the universe that would be evidence for atheism, as it would tell us that origin of life is an easy step. And that is my major 'thinking point'. I think that inorganic chemicals forming life is a HIGHLY IMPROBABLE step. And I use probabilites as a major contributor to my thinking, despite Matt's objections.

Whether chance or miraculous intervention occurs once or a million times seems to me to be irrelevant to the argument as to whether there is, or may be, a god. It's a blind alley.

Therefore, I don't accept your final statement above. Highly improbable events are not a blind alley. I follow John Leslie's reasoning (Universes), as there can be no other conclusion: "that God is real and/or there exist a vastly many, very varied universes",(despite George's objectons to Leslie), and we are in the lucky one. Multiverse theory is pie in the sky, based on unproven string/membrae theory, cannot be tested, and wishful thinking by atheists. We can only know this one universe we are in out close to its event horizon, and we are now at 300,000 years post Big Bang (working backward as we do). We pick up the background radiation and its temperature. We might get right to the edge(?) but space-time is curved. We are not going to go outside, if there is an outside. Read Smolin and Woit objecting to string theory.

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by George Jelliss ⌂ @, St Leonards on Sea, Saturday, July 04, 2009, 16:44 (3753 days ago) @ David Turell

DT writes: "Now, if life is common through the universe that would be evidence for atheism, as it would tell us that origin of life is an easy step."

I don't see what this has to do with either atheism or theism. One can argue that if there was a God and he wanted life to evolve surely he would have made it easy for it to evolve, so it would be everywhere. On the other hand I suppose he might have reasons for wanting life to appear only in one specific place - so that he could keep an eye on it, and destroy it if it doesn't come up to his expectations? One can invent endless scenarios.

According to my brand of atheism, life is just an accident in the universe. This sems to me to fit with all the facts we know, and is the simplest explanation. How improbable an accident it might be is difficult to estimate. I don't think it is so impossibly improbable as to make it a miracle that requires divine assistance. However, DT seems to be trying as hard as he can, via "rare earth" and "complex chemistry" claims, to find evidence to suggest it is that improbable.

--
GPJ

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by David Turell @, Saturday, July 04, 2009, 18:17 (3753 days ago) @ George Jelliss

DT writes: "Now, if life is common through the universe that would be evidence for atheism, as it would tell us that origin of life is an easy step."

I was answering John Clinch and that is how I feel. Spontaneous life is extremely improbable.

I don't see what this has to do with either atheism or theism. One can argue that if there was a God and he wanted life to evolve surely he would have made it easy for it to evolve, so it would be everywhere.

If life were everywhere in the universe then it arose easily and supports spontineity, no God involved.

According to my brand of atheism, life is just an accident in the universe. How improbable an accident it might be is difficult to estimate.

In my view it is highly improbable and dispite Matt, there have been calculations I must look up again to quote as a future assignment.

However, DT seems to be trying as hard as he can, via "rare earth" and "complex chemistry" claims, to find evidence to suggest it is that improbable.

You are corrct. That is my intention.

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by John Clinch @, Monday, July 06, 2009, 12:33 (3752 days ago) @ David Turell

"However, DT seems to be trying as hard as he can, via "rare earth" and "complex chemistry" claims, to find evidence to suggest it is that improbable.
You are corrct. That is my intention".

Then I say that you seem to be starting with your conclusion and retro-fitting the evidence that supports it. I'm not saying you are a pseudoscientist, but that's what they do.

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by David Turell @, Monday, July 06, 2009, 14:45 (3752 days ago) @ John Clinch

"However, DT seems to be trying as hard as he can, via "rare earth" and "complex chemistry" claims, to find evidence to suggest it is that improbable.
You are corrct. That is my intention".

Then I say that you seem to be starting with your conclusion and retro-fitting the evidence that supports it. I'm not saying you are a pseudoscientist, but that's what they do.

You are correct again in a partial way, from my viewpoint. Prior to and like Antony Flew, I reviewed the evidence and changed from agnostic to belief in a universal intelligence imbedded within and without the universe. With my scientific training I feel I have the right to read a study, and its findings, and reach my own conclusions, which may be partially different than the author. Scientific facts do allow different interpretations.

Basically I feel that living organisms are too complex to have invented themselves. My prediction is that when 'junk DNA' is found to be filled with organizing interference RNA, as is happening now in biological research, the overwhelming complexity will present a picture so complex as to enormously reduce the probabilities that natural selection did it. After all natural selection is a passive purposeless process, using whatever forms or biochemicals are presented to it to have a competition decide the issue of what survives. The following example supports my prediction:

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/07/090705131759.htm

And this sort of research is appearing daily. Watson/Crick's discovery of how DNA coded for protein was only the tip of the iceberg of complexity. Something had to manage organization and provide building plans. Those plans are mainly in RNAs.

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by John Clinch @, Friday, July 10, 2009, 11:12 (3748 days ago) @ David Turell

I said "Then I say that you seem to be starting with your conclusion and retro-fitting the evidence that supports it. I'm not saying you are a pseudoscientist, but that's what they do".

David said "You are correct again in a partial way, from my viewpoint. Prior to and like Antony Flew, I reviewed the evidence and changed from agnostic to belief in a universal intelligence imbedded within and without the universe. With my scientific training I feel I have the right to read a study, and its findings, and reach my own conclusions, which may be partially different than the author. Scientific facts do allow different interpretations".

Right, let's skip to the chase: this is pseudo-scientific. To be sure, scientific conclusions differ. Scientists hold different theories. They have different views, often strongly expressed, on the data thrown up by experiments and observations. Studies vary in quality. And I'm quite sure you personally have had scientific training. Now, I'm not saying you're a crank but so do lots of cranks (examples are Rupert Sheldrake and his bizarre morphic resonance idea and Dr Wakefield, who started the MMR scare). In many cases a scientific training appears to be a pre-requisite! Such a training does not, unfortunately, immunize the individual from pseudo-science, the defining characteristic of which is the cherry-picking of evidence to support an a priori, and usually implausible, conclusion. However brilliant you are, David, unless you are an expert in paleo-biology, your views on this are as a lay observer. And if you go around anomaly-hunting and picking bits and pieces out of various studies to support your metaphysical conclusions, you're not applying the scientific method. And to be taken seriously in a scientific debate, you need to.

David again: "Basically I feel that living organisms are too complex to have invented themselves. My prediction is that when 'junk DNA' is found to be filled with organizing interference RNA, as is happening now in biological research, the overwhelming complexity will present a picture so complex as to enormously reduce the probabilities that natural selection did it. After all natural selection is a passive purposeless process, using whatever forms or biochemicals are presented to it to have a competition decide the issue of what survives. The following example supports my prediction:http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/07/090705131759.htm."

You are trashing natural selection, for which there is a vast amount of evidence, but are being rather shy of putting any positive prediction in its place. You don't say but presumably that prediction would be "Godunnit". If so, I'm struggling to understand how that article supports that prediction. Believe me, I do understand where you are coming from: the complexity is indeed staggering and, of course, our present understanding cannot account for the origin of life. But your argument boils down, basically, to a logical fallacy ... it is the argument from personal incredulity: How could this possibly have happened without a designer? But then we encounter enormous philosophical difficulties, do we not? Who designed the designer? And the designer would have to be an entity of even greater complexity, as Dawkins reminds us.

I am extremely confident in saying that there is absolutely no evidence to support a metaphysical conclusion that a designer is responsible for RNA. Basically it's ID, creationism Mark II, and positively not a scientific theory.

By the way, I haven't read Flew. He's on my list of holiday reading. Who knows, perhaps I'll change my mind on the God issue. But if I do, it'll be for metaphysical reasons and not based on any supposed evidence from nature.

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by David Turell @, Sunday, July 12, 2009, 17:45 (3745 days ago) @ John Clinch

I said "Then I say that you seem to be starting with your conclusion and retro-fitting the evidence that supports it. I'm not saying you are a pseudoscientist, but that's what they do".


I think you do not understand my point of view in how I think (for myself, not to have you think that way). I am not a pseudoscientist, and I'm sure I understand the biology of life far better than you do with my medical training. I reached my conclusions after years of study and retrofitted nothing.

David said "You are correct again in a partial way, from my viewpoint. Prior to and like Antony Flew, I reviewed the evidence and changed from agnostic to belief in a universal intelligence imbedded within and without the universe. With my scientific training I feel I have the right to read a study, and its findings, and reach my own conclusions, which may be partially different than the author. Scientific facts do allow different interpretations"

My point is, I think quite clear. You are so enamoured of your belief system, or non-belief system you are not willing to understand mine, or accept that I am allowed to express it. And you use the typical defense mechanism of going on an inappropriate attack, when my position cannot be really attacked. My final position is from natural philosophy and it suits me fine.

Right, let's skip to the chase: this is pseudo-scientific, a priori[/i], and usually implausible, conclusion. However brilliant you are, David, unless you are an expert in paleo-biology, your views on this are as a lay observer.

It is not pseudoscience. I am using scientific evidence to reach a conclusion of my own. I am a lay observer in this area. I am not presenting it in a scientific journal. Then it would be pseudoscience. And since you brought up my possible brilliance, my childhood IQ was something over 150.

David again: "Basically I feel that living organisms are too complex to have invented themselves. My prediction is that when 'junk DNA' is found to be filled with organizing interference RNA, as is happening now in biological research, the overwhelming complexity will present a picture so complex as to enormously reduce the probabilities that natural selection did it. After all natural selection is a passive purposeless process, using whatever forms or biochemicals are presented to it to have a competition decide the issue of what survives.

You are trashing natural selection, for which there is a vast amount of evidence, but are being rather shy of putting any positive prediction in its place.


All the Darwinists claim that evolution has a purposeless direction. Gould explained that since bacteria were the simplest, evolution could only go in the direction of the more complex. Natural selection is passive and purposeless.

You don't say but presumably that prediction would be "Godunnit". If so, I'm struggling to understand how that article supports that prediction.

I'm surprised you don't understand how the article fits. My point is that iRNA's and miRNA's are constantly being discovered out of so-called junk DNA. Life will be discovered to be so complex in its coding system in DNA/RNA that 'chance' development will be seen as impossible. I've been stating this theory of mine over and over on this website. Your mindset is so rigid you are not 'seeing' my comments.

Believe me, I do understand where you are coming from: the complexity is indeed staggering and, of course, our present understanding cannot account for the origin of life.


Right on! Here we are full agreement. But: we will never know 'for sure' how life originated. We can find methods in the lab that may mimic it, but that will be by the intelligent design of the scientists, and may not be the actual historical method. We cannot know the original method with certainty.

I am extremely confident in saying that there is absolutely no evidence to support a metaphysical conclusion that a designer is responsible for RNA. Basically it's ID, creationism Mark II, and positively not a scientific theory.

I understand that is your rigid point of view. It is not mine. I didn't say it was a scientific theory and agree it is metaphysical.

By the way, I haven't read Flew. He's on my list of holiday reading. Who knows, perhaps I'll change my mind on the God issue. But if I do, it'll be for metaphysical reasons and not based on any supposed evidence from nature.

You didn't read what I wrote above accurately. I told you Flew used the same evidence I used from science.

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by xeno6696 @, Omaha NE, Sunday, July 12, 2009, 19:31 (3745 days ago) @ David Turell

Dr. Turell,


Right on! Here we are full agreement. But: we will never know 'for sure' how life originated. We can find methods in the lab that may mimic it, but that will be by the intelligent design of the scientists, and may not be the actual historical method. We cannot know the original method with certainty.


Though I'm jumping in the middle--this paragraph right here. Lets think about this.

Does it really matter if we don't discover the actual and historical method?

Think of the implications of what you're saying...

If there is more than one possible chemical pathway that leads to the scientific theory of abiogenesis--much of your theological argument here is weakened. Each pathway found and correctly verified increases the likelihood of life arising without any interference or design whatsoever. (Doesn't disprove a creator, mind.) It means that creating life isn't as difficult as we would think. This is part of the reason that I find very few metaphysical positions that support a creator.

Actually some of what you say reminds me an awful lot of what is suggested in "The Kybalion," a small book from 1912 that was written by one of the originators of the "new thought" movement. Most people here would write it off as occultist tripe, but its freely available online and gives a very intuitional approach to what amounts to a panentheistic metaphysic. It's interesting anyway if you enjoy theology.

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by David Turell @, Sunday, July 12, 2009, 21:07 (3745 days ago) @ xeno6696

Right on! Here we are full agreement. But: we will never know 'for sure' how life originated. We can find methods in the lab that may mimic it, but that will be by the intelligent design of the scientists, and may not be the actual historical method. We cannot know the original method with certainty.

If there is more than one possible chemical pathway that leads to the scientific theory of abiogenesis--much of your theological argument here is weakened. Each pathway found and correctly verified increases the likelihood of life arising without any interference or design whatsoever. (Doesn't disprove a creator, mind.) It means that creating life isn't as difficult as we would think. This is part of the reason that I find very few metaphysical positions that support a creator.

I agree with your conclusion in the above paragraph but I really don't accept the premise you have accepted. I think we can 'mimic' some of the process, but cannot ever create life de' novo. We know how DNA is coded and are currently finding out some of the purpose in iRNA and eventually will know all of how iRNA works, but the challenge is to create DNA/RNA from scratch and get the right information into that system without copying what we see now. Remember no living organism lives without an innate code. Devise the coding from scratch, not by copying it from our knowledge of it.

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by John Clinch @, Monday, July 20, 2009, 12:30 (3738 days ago) @ xeno6696

Sounds an interesting curiosity, xeno. I may have a peek.

David has reminded us many times here of how extraordinarily difficult it is for life to get started. His view is that it is, in principle, impossible and that, accordingly, science will NEVER be able to describe with certainty how it came about. He draws a metaphysical conclusion from this and asserts that an interventionist God miraculously kick-started it. That seems to me to be philosophically - logically ... unjustified.

It seems to me that two main logical fallacies are being deployed and repeated:
1. The argument from personal incredulity: "I find it incredible that life started this way, therefore it couldn't have".
2. The argument that says because it is unexplained, it is unexplainable.

There is also an explicit category error: science doesn't make "certain" statements. It may make statements which it would be perverse for a reasonable person, looking at the evidence, to deny but that's not the same thing: the predictions of science are not statements of metaphysical truth but merely our best guess at modeling reality. It is provisional and uncertain. And, of course, it does not arrive at a metaphysical conclusion and retro-fit "evidence" in support of it.

As you say, there could have been a number of pathways from inorganic to organic matter. We just don't know yet. But to base one's theism on such apparently narrow ground seems to offer oneself as a hostage to fortune. Imagine a scenario, entirely possible: we discover remnants of bacterial life on Mars or Europa and then recreate life in the lab. Either development, but particularly the two together, would presumably putting a serious dent in theism based solely on the implausibility of life arising. To base a metaphysic on something so contingent seems unwise, particularly as this scenario may well come to pass within the lifetimes of everyone here writing.

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by David Turell @, Monday, July 20, 2009, 14:41 (3738 days ago) @ John Clinch

David has reminded us many times here of how extraordinarily difficult it is for life to get started. His view is that it is, in principle, impossible and that, accordingly, science will NEVER be able to describe with certainty how it came about.


To base a metaphysic on something so contingent seems unwise, particularly as this scenario may well come to pass within the lifetimes of everyone here writing.

I think this discussion by Paul Davies indicates not in our lifetimes, with 60 years of futilee effort behind us. Especially note his comment in the Origin of Life section on the enormous complexity of the simplist cell form.

http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/print/39669

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by xeno6696 @, Omaha NE, Monday, July 20, 2009, 16:43 (3737 days ago) @ John Clinch

Mr. Clinch,

You have--in a concise way--fairly represented my thrust. There's a more direct argument that he hasn't exactly made, but by reading the book by Adler he suggested I'm forming a strong opinion on what exactly Dr. Turell's argument is--and its a little more nuanced than that but I think can still boil down to those two stated fallacies.

In that book, one of the arguments Adler makes is that it we must explain the difference between man and everything else by bringing in an immaterial component--the human mind. And there is little consensus beyond the fact that the mind exists. The mind/brain relationship has alot of open questions.

Extending this to that of origins, his argument here is similar. Material evidence is by itself insufficient. And while it is true our present knowledge is insufficient to answer these questions, I have the exact same objections to this argument as you do. Why posit the unfalsifiable before we have to?

--
\"Why is it, Master, that ascetics fight with ascetics?\"

\"It is, brahmin, because of attachment to views, adherence to views, fixation on views, addiction to views, obsession with views, holding firmly to views that ascetics fight with ascetics.\"

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by David Turell @, Tuesday, July 21, 2009, 14:35 (3737 days ago) @ xeno6696

You have--in a concise way--fairly represented my thrust. There's a more direct argument that he hasn't exactly made, but by reading the book by Adler he suggested I'm forming a strong opinion on what exactly Dr. Turell's argument is--and its a little more nuanced than that but I think can still boil down to those two stated fallacies.

My contentions stand on a four-legged table, developing temporally in the following order: 1) The universe, whose parameters are so finely adjusted, allows life. 2) The origin of life from inorganic matter. 3) The enormous complexity of the coding system DNA/RNA which drives and controls life. 4) The human mind which makes US dilfferent in kind, not degree. I have no idea what the total odds are, when compiled in order, and of course, as Matt notes, there is no reasonable way to estimate and calculate them.

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by David Turell @, Wednesday, July 22, 2009, 13:49 (3736 days ago) @ David Turell

My contentions stand on a four-legged table, developing temporally in the following order: 1) The universe, whose parameters are so finely adjusted, allows life. 2) The origin of life from inorganic matter. 3) The enormous complexity of the coding system DNA/RNA which drives and controls life. 4) The human mind which makes US dilfferent in kind, not degree. I have no idea what the total odds are, when compiled in order, and of course, as Matt notes, there is no reasonable way to estimate and calculate them.

Thought I should add these studies which shows the intricacies of a cell at work, which supports my third point.

http://www.physorg.com/news167400145.html

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by xeno6696 @, Omaha NE, Thursday, July 23, 2009, 00:13 (3735 days ago) @ David Turell

Dr. Turell,

My contentions stand on a four-legged table, developing temporally in the following order: 1) The universe, whose parameters are so finely adjusted, allows life. 2) The origin of life from inorganic matter. 3) The enormous complexity of the coding system DNA/RNA which drives and controls life. 4) The human mind which makes US different in kind, not degree. I have no idea what the total odds are, when compiled in order, and of course, as Matt notes, there is no reasonable way to estimate and calculate them.

Which is why I feel at this point I need to attack your 1).

We can't safely make that claim. See your final sentence above. As far as knowledge goes all we can do is state that our universe indeed, exists, and it is capable of supporting life. To infer that it is "finely tuned" for life makes a series of assumptions that can only be safely made with a helluva lot more knowledge than we currently possess.

--
\"Why is it, Master, that ascetics fight with ascetics?\"

\"It is, brahmin, because of attachment to views, adherence to views, fixation on views, addiction to views, obsession with views, holding firmly to views that ascetics fight with ascetics.\"

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by David Turell @, Thursday, July 23, 2009, 02:43 (3735 days ago) @ xeno6696

Which is why I feel at this point I need to attack your 1).

We can't safely make that claim. See your final sentence above. As far as knowledge goes all we can do is state that our universe indeed, exists, and it is capable of supporting life. To infer that it is "finely tuned" for life makes a series of assumptions that can only be safely made with a helluva lot more knowledge than we currently possess.

Matt: You need to read some lay books on the standard cosmologic theory. There are 20 major parameters that must be finely tuned for life and 100 minor parameters tuned the same way. This is why the Anthropic Principal is so revered by some folks and they start talking about mutlverses. All the cosmologists accept that this universe allows life. Fred Hoyle called it "A put up job". In the same breath I am not saying someone 'tuned' it.

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by xeno6696 @, Omaha NE, Thursday, July 23, 2009, 03:17 (3735 days ago) @ David Turell


Matt: You need to read some lay books on the standard cosmologic theory. There are 20 major parameters that must be finely tuned for life and 100 minor parameters tuned the same way. This is why the Anthropic Principal is so revered by some folks and they start talking about mutlverses. All the cosmologists accept that this universe allows life. Fred Hoyle called it "A put up job". In the same breath I am not saying someone 'tuned' it.

Well, I'm reading "The Comprehensible Cosmos" after Adler's book. I will assume that it should take enough of cosmology into account that I'll get a good overview since it derives all of the physical equations in a really nice 200 page supplement. (That I can understand the derivations is itself amazing... something got built in me somewhere saying that physics was only comprehensible to an elite class...)

If not I could always borrow Hawking's book again. I grabbed it in high school but never really *read* it, to my detriment. All the same, physical theories are a model that *hopes* to create a 1:1 correspondence to reality... that said I have hard time accepting a model when some of the inferences... (here I go again) move beyond the realm of the testable. Which is what I mean when I say "safely" say.

We both agree that there's things we can know and things we can't--and I deign to bring exactly this kind of skepticism to anything I study.

--
\"Why is it, Master, that ascetics fight with ascetics?\"

\"It is, brahmin, because of attachment to views, adherence to views, fixation on views, addiction to views, obsession with views, holding firmly to views that ascetics fight with ascetics.\"

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by dhw, Wednesday, July 22, 2009, 09:10 (3736 days ago) @ John Clinch

John: David has reminded us many times of how extraordinarily difficult it is for life to get started. His view is that it is, in principle, impossible and that, accordingly, science will NEVER be able to describe with certainty how it came about. He draws a metaphysical conclusion from this and asserts that an interventionist God miraculously kick-started it. That seems to me to be philosophically ... logically ... unjustified.

This argument goes to the very heart of our whole discussion. You've extrapolated what you call two logical fallacies, the first of which is based on personal incredulity: "I find it incredible that life started this way, therefore it couldn't have."

We're dealing here with the nature and logic of belief, but ... no doubt unintentionally ... you've imposed the language of certainty. Instead of "it couldn't have", substitute "I don't believe it". Then try this: I find it incredible that life started by chance, and therefore I don't believe it. Your logical fallacy disappears. Now apply the "personal incredulity" argument to your own views: you find the concept of a transcendent God "preposterous", and NDEs and OBEs "nonsense", and therefore they can't exist. Would you accept that as a fair representation? Of course you wouldn't. But again substitute "I don't believe in them" and the argument becomes logical. Each conclusion is based on comprehensible reasons, there can't be certainty either way, and so it comes down to personal conviction. The extension of the first is: "I find it incredible that life started by chance, and so I believe it must have been designed, and so I believe there must have been a designer." Any logical fallacy there? You weigh the evidence, and you reach your personal conclusion (or in my case you don't).

As regards your second logical fallacy, I've never heard anyone say "because it is unexplained, it is unexplainable". Again I'm sure this was not your intention, but you are creating your own fallacy. Such a statement would be a rejection of the whole history of science, and I don't know of anyone on this forum who would be so blinkered as to make it. One might believe that the origin of life will never be explained because of its unique complexity, but there is no logical fallacy in that. I would add that even if eventually scientists do unravel the code that gave rise to life and evolution, they still won't be able to say whether it came about by chance or by design.

At the risk of repetition, I'd like also to consider another important statement (and I think these really are important points that you are raising): "the predictions of science are not statements of metaphysical truth but merely our best guess at modelling reality." I agree. But "best guess" is not "only guess", and there are areas of existence that science may not be able to cover. Your monist materialism is also a belief. Perhaps it's based on your personal incredulity with regard to anything beyond the material world, or perhaps it's based on the fact that you're only willing to believe in the world as you know it. If it's the latter, it's worth bearing in mind that you don't know it. Previously, you have quite rightly pointed out that we don't know what science will come up with in the future. Why, then, should anyone assume that if it does eventually crack the code of life, this will somehow favour the theory that life came about by chance? Why assume that remnants of bacterial life will be found on Mars? Why assume, as some people do, that the universe is teeming with accidental life? Speculation about possible future discoveries is no basis for present belief or for rejecting other present beliefs. I actually agree with your assessment of the consequences of such possible discoveries: if life could be recreated in the lab and was found elsewhere in the universe, along with evidence of evolution (I see that as vital because of the complexity of the mechanism that made it possible), I too would be far more inclined to believe the atheist theory of chance. I expect David would also change his line of thinking, as he has always expressed his readiness to respond to new discoveries. But why do you expect a change now, in the light/dark of our present knowledge/ignorance? Why anticipate conclusions before you even have the evidence?

I am, of course, advocating a wait-and-see agnosticism, but then ... as George might say ... I would, wouldn't I?

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by David Turell @, Wednesday, July 22, 2009, 16:21 (3735 days ago) @ dhw

John: David has reminded us many times of how extraordinarily difficult it is for life to get started. His view is that it is, in principle, impossible and that, accordingly, science will NEVER be able to describe with certainty how it came about.

I would add that even if eventually scientists do unravel the code that gave rise to life and evolution, they still won't be able to say whether it came about by chance or by design.

Great point!

Why, then, should anyone assume that if it does eventually crack the code of life, this will somehow favour the theory that life came about by chance?if life could be recreated in the lab and was found elsewhere in the universe, along with evidence of evolution (I see that as vital because of the complexity of the mechanism that made it possible), I too would be far more inclined to believe the atheist theory of chance.

I expect David would also change his line of thinking, as he has always expressed his readiness to respond to new discoveries.

I would like to answer for myself on these points. Matt has brought up Popper and falsification of scientific theory as a mode of confirmation. If a concept cannot be falsified in any manner, this raises a philosophic problem.

Let's say that a lab produces life. Since we were not present at the time life began, we will not know if the lab's method was the original method, or different, but possibly parallel. To be the same method, it would have to develop to the point that it is exactly comparable to the life we see in the Archaeia (the oldest form of bacteria) and then as dhw cleverly points out, evolution must occur similar to what we know about our evolution. It still won't be exactly the same, as the environment from the past will be difficult to mimic, but if close enough to parallel our evolution, I would change my thinking, BUT only if the combinations of molecules required and used by the lab are clearly shown to have been able to assemble themselves by chance. Otherwise all we have seen is intelligent design.

The whole issue is an extremely difficult area to establish proof. It will be proof by analogy.

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by John Clinch @, Friday, August 07, 2009, 10:31 (3720 days ago) @ dhw

Sorry I've been away so long ... busy, busy.

There are an awful lot of points in your final paragraph. As you know, I am confident that science will one day fully explain the origins of life. I think, though can't prove of course, that the universe is full of life though it may in fact be so unlikely an event that we are life's only home. I just don't get any of the reasons offered as to why this determines the theistic question.

No, I don't find your representation of my position fair. I don't think (that is a metaphysical "think") that God "can't" exist. Anyway, we should define God before going any further. I just don't think there is any evidence, any reason, to believe that we live in a Universe with an interventionist God. That much is preposterous, in my humble opinion.

As for NDEs/OBEs and such, I'm very confident that there is no good evidence for supposing that whatever phenomenon is taking place, that it points to a life outside the body. And besides, if it did, all of science is false and that is somewhat unlikely. Good science flows forward ... Ptolemy, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Einstein. So, yes, I'm pretty sure that, as evidence for the existence of life beyond the grave, it is unscientific wish-fulfilment. It is a testable claim and the science is simply found wanting. A serious problem is the lack of any plausible mechanism by which the claims made for NDEs/ OBEs could work.

God, by contrast, is not a testable claim and as a claim to metaphysical truth, I can't disprove the existence of a transcendent being designing it all. Not at all, just as I can't disprove a host of metaphysical claims. My hunch is that it's very unlikely that humans, with their known fears, their desire for powerful father-figures to follow, their yen for ritual and for certainty would happen to have hit upon the real solution to the conundrum of existence in the form of the Judeo-Christian concept God. And remember His writ only runs over half of humanity ... the rest are total heathens by the church I was born into. We being overly western-centric: what about eastern religion which is godless?

You misunderstand science and, if I may say, not for the first time. To all intents and purposes, in constructing our view of reality, "best guess" is the only guess because it follows that, if a model is not the best one, then it should be abandoned. Positing another model ... in this case, a metaphysical one which is not falsifiable - as our best guess, if in contradistinction to a better one, it must be inferior. I say this not to disparage but to ask you to accept that science just says "this is what we think happens." And, that essential humility makes it the powerful engine for understanding that it is. It learned a long time ago to leave the metaphysics to others.

But you continue to wish to confuse the two. I still say your basic position contains the two logical fallacies I have referred to: the argument from personal incredulity combined with the argument that says because something is unexplained, it is inexplicable. But you are right here: the latter would negate the entire scientific endeavour. Anything that is objectively explicable in principle is the province of science: that includes a description of how life arose.

You then attempt to trump this by adding "that even if eventually scientists do unravel the code that gave rise to life and evolution, they still won't be able to say whether it came about by chance or by design". This won't do. Once scientists have unravelled such a code, that's it. Game over. The entire underpinning of your argument falls away and there is nothing left to explain. Except, of course, the mystery of mysteries - that the universe is. Then we talk of God.

I'm off on a two-week break now where there are no computers.

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by dhw, Monday, August 10, 2009, 12:06 (3717 days ago) @ John Clinch

John is confident that science will explain the origins of life, and that the universe is full of life, but he doesn't "get any of the reasons offered as to why this determines the theistic question."

It doesn't. It only shortens the odds. Each of us has a borderline of conviction, but it varies from individual to individual. I can of course only speak for myself, but if scientists were to decipher and implement the code of life, and if the universe were found to be "full of life" with its own processes of evolution, I would find the theory of chance beginnings considerably more convincing than if scientists fail to crack the code and no evolutionary life is found anywhere except here. And that is what belief is all about ... being convinced.

You wrote that there is no good evidence for NDEs and OBEs, and such a phenomenon "points to a life outside the body. And besides, if it did, all of science is false and that is somewhat unlikely." I don't have a problem with your scepticism, but at the same time I don't see why you have a problem with my open-mindedness. What you call "good evidence" is a subjective judgement, and your reference to science shows that you are only prepared to accept scientific evidence as "good". That is your prerogative. I am not prepared to discount certain personal experiences of my own or of others. Nor am I convinced that science has yet come anywhere near discovering all the talents or dimensions of Nature.

You ask me to "accept that science just says "this is what we think happens." And that essential humility makes it the powerful engine for understanding that it is. It learned a long time ago to leave the metaphysics to others." I have no quarrel with the essential humility of science. My quarrel is with the lack of humility of those who assume that their model is "better" than another model. You consider the scientific model to be the "best guess", which again is your prerogative, and you continue: "Positing another model ... in this case, a metaphysical one which is not falsifiable ... as our best guess, if in contradistinction to a better one, it must be inferior." No-one can deny that if one model is the best it must be better than the one which is not the best, in which case the one which is not the best is inferior. But who decides which is "best"? The difference between us here is that you have made your decision, and I have not, largely because I'm not convinced that the two models are mutually exclusive. I therefore leave the whole question open.

Lastly, we come to something fundamental. You wrote: "Anything that is objectively explicable in principle is the province of science: that includes the origin of life." I have no problem with this either, and have never argued that "because something is unexplained, it is inexplicable." That was your expression, not mine. However, your next argument is your own sortie into the land of non sequiturs. First you quote me (thank you): "...even if eventually scientists do unravel the code that gave rise to life and evolution, they still won't be able to say whether it came about by chance or by design." Your comment is as follows: "This won't do. Once scientists have unravelled such a code, that's it. Game over. The entire underpinning of your argument falls away and there is nothing left to explain. Except, of course, the mystery of mysteries ... that the universe is. Then we talk of God."

What game is over, why is it over, why does the argument fall away? If a conscious intelligence unravels the code, how does that prove that it didn't take a conscious intelligence to devise the code? The mystery of mysteries is that the universe is, and that everything in it is, and "everything" includes life.

I hope that by the time you read this you will have enjoyed your two-week break.

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by John Clinch @, Monday, July 20, 2009, 11:05 (3738 days ago) @ David Turell

Let's try and avoid sterile ad hominems. As I said before I have no doubt about your brilliance but I was making the very simple point that being of high intelligence, as you undoubtedly are, does not provide immunity from specious thinking. It is a fact, for example, that students have a more positive beliefs in the paranormal and conspiracy theories than do the background population.

And I was making the obvious point that, like me, you are not an expert in this, a very specialised field.

By the way, psedoscientists positively DO NOT go around trying to publish in scientific journal ... surely you know that they go out of their way to AVOID such publications because they know that so many readers of high intellect will read their crap and pull it apart. It's why they tend to want to sue people for criticising them rather than present their evidence to people who can think critically ... to wit, the British Chiropractors Association's disgraceful lawsuit against science journalist Simon Singh. In the backlash, they were challenged to come up with the evidence to support their claims and I understand that, now it has been published, it really is rubbish. Mostly it's "evidence" of the poor quality of OTHER treatment.

In some ways, when I reflect on it, there are similarities here. Your "evidence" about RNA and so on can only be "evidence" against the idea that complex life arose spontaneously. Even you must admit it can never be positive evidence FOR an interventionist God ... which is, as you say, a metaphysical claim. The best that the you can do is the argument from personal incredulity. It's so complex it must have had a designer. I've said that before and it hasn't been addressed ... I ain't the only one here whose comments are skipped over!

Go and try and find evidence for God in RNA and good luck. You're not alone in your desire and many have tried before to prove God by looking at nature. I think you are guilty of repeating William Paley's mistake with his watch and his eye analogy. The teleological argument is persuasive but Paley got it famously wrong and, with all due respect, I think you have as well.

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by David Turell @, Monday, July 20, 2009, 16:48 (3737 days ago) @ John Clinch

By the way, psedoscientists positively DO NOT go around trying to publish in scientific journal ...

In view of dhw's previous comments about your replies, I appreciate the civility you are showing in this response and I will do the same. We are eons apart in our views but I feel we can learn from each other. No one can read everything in science that comes down the pike.

What is not pseudoscience in the possible paranormal area is the work by Pim van Lommel, a Dutch cardiologist, reported in Lancet Vol.: 358, Dec. 15, 2001. It is worth a read, as a prospective study of near-to-death coronary patients with some extraordinary findings. I have not googled him recently, but I know he continued his work. I can give you references to other physicians' reports.

In some ways, when I reflect on it, there are similarities here.Your "evidence" about RNA and so on can only be "evidence" against the idea that complex life arose spontaneously. Even you must admit it can never be positive evidence FOR an interventionist God ... which is, as you say, a metaphysical claim. The best that the you can do is the argument from personal incredulity. It's so complex it must have had a designer.

I do agree with your observation about me. There will never be positive proof of God, only as Adler uses 'proof beyond a reasonable doubt', and we do convict in error at times.

Go and try and find evidence for God in RNA and good luck. You're not alone in your desire and many have tried before to prove God by looking at nature.

Just as Antony Flew has done. Perhaps in his 80's he is accepting Pascal's wager, but he also has accepted Christianity in his book. I can't go near Biblical fairy tales, apologies to Mark. I'll stick with a universal intelligence.

I think you are guilty of repeating William Paley's mistake with his watch and his eye analogy.

DNA/RNAS coding is enormously more complex than watchmaking. It is the key to my persuasion. Where did the inherent information come from? All life runs on it.

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by John Clinch @, Thursday, August 06, 2009, 21:32 (3720 days ago) @ David Turell

It came, quite simply and self-evidently, from Nature itself. It inheres in it, forms part of it, IS it. That's my religion.

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by dhw, Monday, July 06, 2009, 08:32 (3752 days ago) @ George Jelliss

BBella wrote: All life could be ever existing and ever evolving, couldn't it? Life from non-life would be a real jump of evolution, wouldn't it? Some-thing from no-thing?

David wrote: If life is common through the universe that would be evidence for atheism, as it would tell us that origin of life is an easy step.

George wrote: I don't see what this has to do with either atheism or theism.

This whole discussion has everything to do with belief, i.e. with what seems plausible to us. In answer to BBella, I can only say that I would not dare to argue against the theory of the Big Bang, which is as far back as we can ever go. This has to mark a beginning, and the Earth has to have had a beginning, and so life on Earth has to have had a beginning. But of course "ever existing" and "ever evolving" can't be disproved, just as God can't be disproved.

Life from non-life remains my problem, and again we come to plausibility. George believes that life is the result of an accident, and said earlier (June 26) that it is likely to have occurred elsewhere in the universe. This suggests that if conditions are right, there are natural laws which will produce life, and then evolution, from non-life. David and I are sceptical that such (unknown) laws exist, because of the complexity of the only life we know. However, if life and evolution turned out to be commonplace in the universe, I ... and presumably David too ... would feel obliged to reconsider the possibility of such laws. George is right that committed theists would still find a place for their God, but for those of us who are not bound to a rigid dogma, there would inevitably be a rethink. Perhaps the Georgian equivalent would be an out-of-body experience. However, we need the evidence first!

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by John Clinch @, Monday, July 06, 2009, 17:15 (3751 days ago) @ David Turell

Responses to David:-

" "Privileged Planet" (I've not read it) makes much of this because it allows us to study the universe through a 'thin' portion of the galaxy, and then infers 'God did it". I find that a weak argument."

"Godunnit" is never a good explanation.

"That is why I don't consider the anthropic principal worth much".

Um, why not? The anthropic principle is, as I'm sure you know, the statement that what we can expect to observe depends on the conditions necessary for our existence as observers. It is a profound statement that we must live in an observable Universe. I accept that some people do not consider it much of an insight but I do.

"If the Universe is teeming with life, how come SETI hasn't had a result?"

Ah, the "why aren't they here?" problem. Many reasons, distance and time being two. Give it a reasonable chance.

"if life is common through the universe that would be evidence for atheism"

I disagree. I understand your point about chance and probability but a discovery that life is teeming would simply confirm that this is a life-producing Universe. We know that already. On the contrary, it could just as easily be an argument for theism: why would the Universe be (reatively) full of life-forms if there was no point to it all?

"I follow John Leslie's reasoning (Universes), as there can be no other conclusion: "that God is real and/or there exist a vastly many, very varied universes""

I read Leslie some years ago and was impressed but I don't see how the Multiverse theory is any more ridiculous that the God theory. Actually I disgree with your other comments: the credibility of Multiverse theory doesn't depend on the success or otherwise of string theory or M-theory. I am aware that string theory encounters some serious objectors.

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by David Turell @, Tuesday, July 07, 2009, 16:51 (3750 days ago) @ John Clinch

"if life is common through the universe that would be evidence for atheism"

I disagree. I understand your point about chance and probability but a discovery that life is teeming would simply confirm that this is a life-producing Universe. We know that already. On the contrary, it could just as easily be an argument for theism: why would the Universe be (reatively) full of life-forms if there was no point to it all?

If one accepts human 'exceptionalism' then life isolated to the Earth makes a strong argument for theism. If life is everywhere then it is not unusual and it is simply the anthropic principal at work, and to me that perfectly fits atheism.

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by John Clinch @, Wednesday, July 08, 2009, 11:43 (3750 days ago) @ David Turell

I think we'll just have to disagree: I simply don't accept that human exceptionalism makes a strong case for theism. The Universe (or, with a nod to the anthropic principle, thiis universe) was poised to create life, whether once on planet Earth or countless other times. Neither conclusion gets us closer to God as as solution to the fine-tuning problem.

David, I've tried to articulate my views on the God question in a separate post.

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by John Clinch @, Thursday, August 06, 2009, 21:29 (3720 days ago) @ David Turell

By the way, in your post, I'm not sure you have used the expression "anthropic principle" correctly. The anthropic principle says nothing about the frequency of the appearance of life, merely how we come to be observers in an observable universe.

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by David Turell @, Friday, August 07, 2009, 00:56 (3720 days ago) @ John Clinch

By the way, in your post, I'm not sure you have used the expression "anthropic principle" correctly. The anthropic principle says nothing about the frequency of the appearance of life, merely how we come to be observers in an observable universe.


I think you are correct as some people view Carter's principal. John Leslie takes a good portion of his book, Universes, discussing 'weak', 'superweak' and 'strong' versions of the principle. I've never thought much of it except mental masterbation. Leslie quotes Brandon Carter as regretting using the term 'anthropic' at all, as certainly other animals, elephants, dogs, dinosaurs can also be observers, but not at the level of scientists as humans are. I know that we humans are a major part of the principal, but life has to be permitted for evolution to occur for 'us' to finally appear. And that is the way I view it. It is a tautology, at any rate.

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by John Clinch @, Friday, August 07, 2009, 10:35 (3720 days ago) @ David Turell

Fair point and I've said so myself. I confess to have been rather impressed by Leslie's exposition of the principle. "Anthropic" is a misnomer, true, which is why I was careful to use the neutral expression "observer."

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by David Turell @, Thursday, July 17, 2014, 20:07 (1914 days ago) @ John Clinch

Anthropic principle vs. Copernican principle. How special are we?

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/is-earth-s-life-unique-in-the-universe/?&...

James Le Fanu: Why Us?

by David Turell @, Wednesday, July 08, 2009, 16:00 (3749 days ago) @ David Turell

Multiverse theory is pie in the sky, based on unproven string/membrae theory, cannot be tested, and wishful thinking by atheists. Read Smolin and Woit objecting to string theory.

An article using string theory appears to have explained a super-conductivty phenomenon. String theory may have some applications in our reality.

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/07/090706113702.htm

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